The translation of foreign films for American audiences involves subtleties as much as it does subtitles. The unspoken social norms of a Japanese movie, say, or the lugubrious personal tragedy of a French film work perfectly within their own cultural context, even if American actors and filmmakers wouldn’t necessarily be able to pull off the same kind of tone.
All of which is to say that “Stoker,” the U.S. debut of acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (“Oldboy,” “Thirst”) may have played perfectly well with Korean actors as Korean characters in South Korea, but as an American movie, the brooding stares and significant pauses read as silly melodrama. The film has visual style to spare, but even that becomes overwhelming, turning “Stoker” into self-parody.
Mia Wasikowska (looking and behaving like a young Jennifer Jason Leigh) stars as India Stoker, a sheltered young woman who has just turned 18. Tragically, on the day of her birthday, her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a car accident, leaving India to grieve alongside her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), with whom she’s never been close.
Both women are stunned on the day of Richard’s funeral by the surprise arrival of his long-estranged brother Charles (Matthew Goode), who sweeps into their lives so seductively that it’s immediately clear to the viewer, if not to Charles’ in-laws, that he’s very bad news. When the housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and Richard and Charles’ mother (Jacki Weaver) suddenly disappear, it’s clear that mysterious and murky deeds are afoot.
Actor Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”) makes his screenwriting debut with a story that would probably last about ten minutes without all the raised eyebrows, unfinished sentences and other gaps in the action —these moments of unspoken import are clearly intended to be enigmatic and haunting, but they wind up being irritating and, later, giggle-worthy. The symbols get laid on thick (shoes! eggs!) but since these characters never manifest themselves as actual people, it’s impossible to think of them as anything more than chess pieces on a beautifully-crafted board.
Everything culminates in a Big Reveal that strains credulity and teeters “Stoker” dangerously into camp territory.
Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, a frequent collaborator of Park’s, glides across the film’s many gleaming surfaces and enables the director’s ability to dissolve from, say, a field of tall dry grass to a brush going through a woman’s hair, and the great Thérèse DePrez production-designs the daylights out of the proceedings. It’s just that the movie relies too heavily on their contributions at the expense of story and character.
Wasikowska and Kidman play it as straight as possible under the circumstances, but both of these intuitive actresses are weighed down by the trunks of subtext they’re forced to lug around. Goode, on the other hand, comes off as the dramatic equivalent of a comedian who can’t tell a joke without laughing in anticipation of the punch line; he radiates so much gleeful sadism that he can’t contain it behind a poker face.
“Stoker” will no doubt please certain members of Park’s rabid fanbase, but other partisans of the director, as well as viewers approaching his work for the first time, may find that something’s been lost in translation.