Rob Harmon’s Recommendation 06/25/13

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Rob Harmon

A fascinating trend in the history of American filmmaking is that many excellent filmmakers (and some not so much) have come here from other countries in order to make movies. While Hollywood exercises enormous influence on the world cinema scene just think of how much the outsider-perspectives of F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE or Alex Cox’s REPO MAN or the bodies of works by Lubitsch and Wilder have affected our film culture.

STOKER should be regarded in this light: It is the first English-language film of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who came into prominence in the early 2000’s with his gritty “Revenge” trilogy (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY, LADY VENGEANCE), as well as the taut military thriller JSA: JOINT SECURITY AREA. Park developed a reputation for infusing lofty, almost Shakespearean themes with a violent genre sensibility. He was embraced by critics as well as by fans of “extreme” cinema for his bloody, baroque meditations on violence and revenge and their effects on the human psyche.

Like many of Park’s previous efforts Stoker is a thriller, and an effective, gruesome one at that. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 and is a friendless outcast in high school. To make matters worse her father and best friend in the world (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a mysterious car accident on her birthday, while her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, the character’s name a clever nod to Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT), whom she never even knew existed, shows up at the palatial Stoker home announcing that he will stay, to the delight of India’s unstable, sexually-frustrated mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). India is more skeptical about Charlie, though, and his urbane, world-traveling exploits. When a number of people—the housekeeper, an aunt—begin to disappear, it may be that Charlie is behind it, as well as a number of other dark family secrets.  The Stokers are an unusual bunch, each of them more-than-capable of stoking this story along: India in her virginal white outfits but with an unusual taste for bird hunting; Evie with her pent-up sexuality and mid-life crisis; and Charlie, almost too-perfectly handsome, just couldn’t be a murderer… or could he?

During its 99 lean minutes, Stoker conjures up a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale-like atmosphere, one where blood-and-guts and hints of eroticism are the engines of grandiose storytelling. There is a great deal of psycho-sexual tension at work in this family and Park and his screenwriter (first-timer Wentworth Miller, better known as an actor until now) are wise enough to never reveal too much of their hand, subtle enough to leave a lot to the imagination. Stoker proves that—similarly to CARRIE—in a story about a young girl’s pubescent awakening to the cruel realities of the world, blood-letting can be a remarkably effective metaphor. Though highly stylized, this film never loses it grounding and its heart: the family unit, grotesque though it may be.

Many of Park Chan-wook’s films are available for rental in our Korean section, including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, JSA: Joint Security Area and Thirst.