StokerThis, the first-ever English language film by South Korea’s Chanwook Park (of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY and THIRST fame), is an outrageously stylish and fascinating work. Narrative deficiencies prevent STOKER from reaching masterpiece status, but it’s still far above average.

The script for STOKER was written by actor Wentworth Miller (best known for his roles in PRISON BREAK and RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE), and included in a 2010 listing of notable unproduced screenplays. The eventual Fox Searchlight backed film was produced by the Scott Brothers (Ridley and the late Tony) and lensed on location in Tennessee. I’m not expecting it to make much money during its Spring 2013 theatrical release, but I do believe STOKER will develop a devoted cult following in years to come.

India is the sullen and withdrawn eighteen-year-old daughter of Evelyn and Richard Stoker. The latter has just died (allegedly) in a car accident, and his brother Charles comes to stay with Evelyn and India. This has the effect of further inflaming a highly unstable family dynamic, with Evelyn becoming attracted to Charles and India rejecting him outright. Charles clearly has a thing for India, and has had since she was a baby (precisely why he’s so obsessed with her is never explained)—and she, despite her attempts at denying it, is definitely attracted to him.

With a family name like Stoker it’s hardly a surprise that a strain of latent psychosis is evident in both Charles and India. Charles demonstrates his proclivities almost as soon as he moves into the Stoker house by killing a servant and stashing her corpse in the basement freezer. Charles also offs India’s aunt Gwendolyn when she becomes a bit too inquisitive, and later “saves” India from a pubescent rapist by snapping the kid’s neck.

The latter killing arouses India considerably, and ignites her own psychotic nature. She nonetheless remains ambivalent about Charles, especially when he reveals the nasty truth about his brother’s “accidental” death.

Chanwook Park fans worried that his unique sensibilities might be watered down in this, his first film made outside his native South Korea, can rest assured: STOKER is every inch a Park film, with his penchants for perverse eroticism and unflinching brutality very much in evidence, as well as the stylistic extravagance that characterizes all his work.

Nearly every conceivable stylistic quirk is evident in STOKER, which can be used as an educational primer in creative visual storytelling. Not since the glory days of the 1960s New Wave movements has a filmmaker played around with the mechanics of filmmaking with such glee and conviction. Park’s brilliance as a filmmaker results in a film that, once one adjusts to its loopy rhythms, is enormously fun to watch. It also contains unusually strong performances by Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode, proving that Park’s talents as a director of actors aren’t confined to Korean performers.

In the narrative arena, unfortunately, the film falls short. It’s a mess, in fact, with a wealth of under-explained elements and a lot of missing connective tissue.

What exactly is behind Charles’s obsession with India? If a convincing explanation was offered I missed it. Is there a psychic connection between them? For that matter, is there a supernatural component (which the ominous atmosphere seems to portend) at all? And how exactly does the Nicole Kidman played Evelyn Stoker fit into it all? The character is incidental to the narrative, yet Kidman is granted many lingering close-ups and a lengthy climactic speech that suggest otherwise; might Kidman have some pivotal scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor or was Park simply trying to justify her salary (which, she being the biggest star, likely dwarfed those of Goode and Wasikowska)?

I don’t know if Park is to blame for the narrative puzzlement or the fault is with screenwriter Wentworth Miller, but it keeps the film from reaching its full potential as a subversive classic.

Vital Statistics

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director: Chanwook Park
Producers: Michael Costigan, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller
Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung
Editing: Nicholas De Toth
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Ralph Brown, Peg Allen, Lauren Roman, Harmony Korine, Lucas Till, Alden Ehrenreich