Granted, it is probably a bit early in 2013 to start tossing around monikers like best of the year, and yes, there is bound to be at least a film or two yet to come, that will inevitably top it, but at this particular time, on this particular day in mid-to-late March, one has no other ethical recourse but to hand such a moniker to Park Chan-wook's English-language debut, the beautifully enigmatic Stoker. Full of the succulent detail found in the oeuvre of the Korean auteur (Park's regular cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, has come along to Hollywood for the ride as well), and done in the most intriguing, the most metaphorically daring, the most psycho-sexual manner possible, even if we are seeing a somewhat different side of Park Chan-wook than we are used to. When we see Mia Wasikowska, as the newly eighteen year old India Stoker, dressed in saddle shoes, a spider crawling dangerously close to her nether regions, eyes staring not at you, but through you, we know we are in a different kind of world here - a newly discovered Park Chan-wook kind of world. But then, Stoker was around long before the Korean ex-pat signed his name to the dotted line.
Written by Wentworth Miller (that dude from Prison Break, as a friend put it, when finding out who scripted the film), the screenplay floundered about Hollywood for at least two years before finally being made, even managing to be voted one of the ten best unproduced screenplays of 2010. Though with obvious reference to Bram Stoker, this film is not a vampire movie per se - though one could argue such a fact, if daring to speak in the metaphorical - but actually more of the kind of psycho-sexual thriller that made Alfred Hitchcock the best known director on the planet in the 1940's and 1950's. So Hitchcockian is Stoker, and Miller has said he based the basic premise of his screenplay on Hitch's 1943 classic, Shadow of a Doubt, even giving Matthew Goode's character the name of Uncle Charlie, after Joseph Cotten from the Hitchcock classic, that we see Park almost channel the master of suspense throughout his film. From the (mostly) unreleased sexual tension, to the charming sociopath, to the use of trains as sexual euphemism, Stoker is, at times, the epitome of the Hitchcockian motif, but here, both Miller and Park take their characters in a much more twisted direction than Hitch was ever able to do under the tight Production Code of the time. A beautifully filmed, delectably manicured, visceral kind of direction. The kind of cinematic creature that sinks its metaphorical fangs into you, and just refuses to let go at any price, dragging you along as its victim of circumstance, as it darkly and dankly treads brilliantly visual and rapaciously emotional caverns as if the most disarming, and therefore dangerous kind of filmic spelunker.
Now I know some of my fellow critics have been harping on about how, without the artistic freedoms Park is usually afforded back home in Korea, the film suffers, but nothing could be further from the so-called truth. Sure, we do not get the in-your-face-ness of Park's typical oeuvre, a vicious streak that came boiling well over the surface of films like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance - a boiling over that I quite liked by the way - but in its place, we are handed a quiet and melodic, and rivetingly unnerving, film experience. We are given a creature that near-perfectly blends together the appalling and gruesome tropes of horror with the alluring and titillating aspects of a thriller. When Wong Kar-wai made his first attempt at an English-language film in 2008, the often unfairly maligned My Blueberry Nights, the usually cool and collected Hong Kong director, let loose with a brazen American hoot and holler. With Stoker, the typically audacious Korean auteur, takes the opposite approach, and creates the kind of film that grabs it strength through a sort of restrained unfamiliarity. From beginning to end, which is actually the beginning again, Stoker exudes the creepiest of vibes, even when nothing particularly creepy is happening at the moment, and it is in this very aspect that Park brilliantly succeeds in creating what this critic has no other ethical recourse but to call, at this particular time, on this particular day in mid-to-late March, the best film of the year.