Were the task of Americanizing a modern Korean masterpiece not daunting enough already, the looming remake of Oldboy now has to stand toe-to-toe with not just the original film, but also Park Chan-wook’s newest feature, Stoker, which is something of a long lost sister to Oldboy. Chan-wook’s first English language film trades the neon-lit smog of downtown Korea for the deciduous overgrowth of Appalachia, and takes more cues from Victorian horror than Japanese manga. Despite the differences in aesthetics though, you’d be forgiven for thinking Chan-wook’s western debut is so comfortably within his established ballpark, it borders on self-plagiarism.
Oldboy followed alcoholic office drone, and negligent father, Oh Dae-su, who, for unknown reasons, is imprisoned in a hotel room for fifteen years. Left to wonder what crime he must have committed to deserve such punishment, he trains rigorously, so that he might take fifteen years, and then some, off the lifespans of those behind his capture. The film was received with high praise across hemispheres, and helped draw Western attention towards some of the exceptional cinema coming out of South Korea. A Hollywood remake, featuring Samuel L. Jackson, and one of the better Olsen sisters, is set for release later this year.
Scripted by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, of all people, Stoker imitates many of Oldboy’s beats and plot points, but wraps them around a much darker heart. As the second installment in Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” Oldboy is appropriately violent and bloody, but understands the emotional investment that makes revenge such a powerful motivator. Stoker is a different, crueler beast, driven by something less pure than a misguided sense of justice. It luxuriates in slowly creeping tension, and only rarely makes an effort to uncork some of the pressure. It’s a gradually tightening steel trap, one set to the pace of lackadaisical, urbane country living, but always irritatingly, deviously offbeat.
Tested family bonds have been a cornerstone of Chan-wook’s films, and Stoker dives headfirst into the familial muck by pairing one Stoker’s birthday with another’s death. The birthday girl is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a dour young woman of privilege who would give Wednesday Addams the willies. The untimely passing of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), brings a congregation of well-wishers to the family’s ancient manor, including estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who provides a pair of strong, young shoulders to comfort the widow, Ms. Stoker (Nicole Kidman).
“I can see things people can’t see, hear things people can’t hear,” India intones gravely at the film’s open, before we roll back to see what’s brought this mysterious girl to the side of a highway ditch. What she sees and hears of Charlie isn’t comforting. Bottling up feelings far more disturbing than your average teenage angst, there’s something nefarious about India that she recognizes in her Uncle, who woos Ms. Stoker like the big bad wolf trying to get into bed with grandma. Goode’s plastic smile and overly inviting v-neck sweaters stand in such stark contrast to the gothic surroundings, that his inclusion in any scene ratchets up the suspense, in a film that’s almost always sopping wet with menace.
All-encompassing dread is Stoker’s main stock and trade, as the measured, loose plotting keeps you guessing as to how every scene will play out. That puts it at odds with the cleaner, A, B, C detective structure of Oldboy, and the films are strangers in many other regards. Oldboy famously created one of the best fight scenes ever recorded in a single take, while Stoker uses whiplash editing and intercutting to set your teeth on edge watching dinner table conversation, and piano playing. Where Oldboy finds intimacy in stylish action, Stoker makes opera out of banality.
And yet, the film is very much a 98-minute tribute to Chan-woo’s breakout thriller, and, in particular, Oldboy‘s infamous finale. Stoker’s immaculately wrapped gift boxes, household objects turned into weapons, mysterious character backstories and….”unconventional” romances are so unmistakably of a piece with Oldboy, that you imagine Miller writing the script specifically for Chan-woo’s direction, lest he see himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit. The dependence on the inspiration becomes all the more apparent when filtered through Miller’s dialogue, which can sometimes be thunderously leaden. Bizarre manners of speech can often intensify an audience’s discomfort, which is certainly the film’s aim, but some of the exchanges approach Twin Peaks-ian degrees of beating around bushes.
Stoker’s words often fall short of its sensual ambitions, but as a sensory experience, it’s outstanding. Chung Chung-hoon, Chan-woo’s go-to cinematographer, lenses the film masterfully, capturing the expertly designed sets and costumes in loving detail. More than anything though, this is a film meant to be heard… if not necessarily for the dialogue. Clint Mansell’s excellent score broods appropriately during big moments, but the real standout is listening to all the incidental noise that fills the dead silences. India has the keen senses of a hunter, but you quickly understand how maddening that can become in a world of scraping cutlery, cracking eggshells, and heels hammering on creaking wooden steps.
You could argue a sans-dialogue version of Stoker would have been more effective, but the story’s psychosexual subtext has some real, rancid meat to it. India and Charlie are a pair of predators inextricably caught in one another’s orbit, and the stylish manner in which their game is presented keeps you on edge, waiting to see which will strike first. Stoker will be altogether too flashy, and nasty for some, and its brutal finale provides little to cheer for. Unlike Oldboy, which turns away from its own bleakness, Stoker embraces the dark, crafting an entrancing music box of a film that – when you listen closely – sounds not all that dissimilar to nails on a chalkboard.