Park Chan-wook thundered onto the international movie scene in 2003 with his breakout, Grand Prix-winning Oldboy. Championed by Tarantino and embraced worldwide by fans of extreme Asian cinema, it became an instant classic, and notorious for its scenes of live-squid-eating and father-daughter incest.
Whilst his first English-language feature, Stoker, plays with similarly incestuous material, it falls far short of the transgressive, blackly comic and genuinely disturbing achievements of his previous work.
It's the story of India - played by the waifish Mia Wasikowska - troubled daughter of the wealthy Stoker clan. Living in a secluded farmhouse with her widowed mother (Nicole Kidman), she becomes ever more introverted after the mysterious death of her beloved father, until his brother, Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), enters their lives. Mia, who was unaware of her uncle's existence until his sudden arrival on the scene, reacts to Charlie's presence with a mix of resentment and burgeoning sexual interest, although she starts to suspect that this surrogate father and potential lover harbours predictably darker secrets than at first he lets on.
Chan-wook might be seen as South Korea's answer to David Fincher, in that he's also a purveyor of challenging and smart dramas for adult audiences with a coolly stylish visual sensibility. And like Fincher, often the quality of the screenplays with which he works determines whether the finished article is either a chocolate cake - dark, rich, and delicious - or a chocolate mousse: frothy and insubstantial.
Stoker is a chocolate mousse of a movie if ever there was one, and the fault largely lies with Prison Break actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller, working under the pseudonym of Ted Foulke. Without giving anything away, the ostensible mysteries on which the plot hinges (who is Uncle Charlie? whatever happened to daddy Stoker?) will prove barely mysterious to all but the most uninitiated of filmgoers. When the 'revelations' do come, they'd struggle to raise an eyebrow let alone a heartbeat.
This needn't have been such a problem, however. Miller was clearly influenced by Hitchcock's underrated Shadow of a Doubt, another Gothic tale of the appearance in small-town suburbia of a malevolent uncle, likewise named Charlie, and the erotic spell he casts over his adolescent niece. In both films, there is little attempt to conceal the uncles' shady pasts, with the filmmakers choosing instead to dwell upon the turbulence caused by their presence in contained and repressed communities.
But whereas Hitchcock reliably colours the premise with satirical flourishes and simmering sexual undercurrents, watching Stoker is like being bludgeoned about the head with a moth-eaten copy of Freud's complete works. For every moment of palpable sexual tension, such as a stand-out sequence of seduction during a piano duet ending in near-orgasm, there's another that crudely smothers the atmosphere in obviousness, reaching its nadir when Wasikowska masturbates in the shower whilst recalling a murder to which she was witness. In the end, it leaves you wondering whether Hollywood is getting more patronising, or if audiences are becoming less perceptive and in need of ever-larger narrative signposts to follow what's happening.
In truth, Stoker isn't half as clever or penetrating as it thinks it is. It's weighed down by stilted, corny dialogue, and a tone that takes itself far too seriously even as it veers ever further into camp. Imagine The Addams Family with all of the jokes excised and you're pretty much there.
Luckily, it's enlivened to an extent by the actors' knowingly-arch performances, especially Matthew Goode's raffish, poised turn as Uncle Charlie, clearly relishing the opportunity to play the whole thing as sinisterly as humanly possible. And Chan-wook's inventive framings have survived the transportation intact, ornamenting every scene with baroque touches and a sensual use of bold colours to signify the characters' churning desires.
With its mix of sex amid implausibly attractive people, and gruesome yet artfully-composed death, Stoker perhaps works best as a date movie. Beautiful but empty, sporadically fun but finally unsatisfying, and despite its pretensions of depth, it's unlikely to endure for long as very much else.