Until I actually sit down to write this weekly blog, I'm never 100% certain which of the several many films I've watched during the week will take center stage. Contenders for today's slot included "Three Crowns of the Sailor" (a long listed 'must see' early work from Chilean exile Raul Ruiz -- frankly a long and generally incomprehensible avant garde ramble, now thankfully crossed off), "Panic in Year Zero" (a 1962 directorial debut from actor Ray Milland at the stage when his career was beginning to slide and a not uninteresting stab at the period's communist paranoia), and recent Cannes prizewinner "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" (an overpraised and leisurely policier set in rural Turkey).
Any one of these three might have made an interesting column, although I have some doubts about the first, but finally I decided to opt for the above new release since it arrived with some impeccable credentials and some glowing reviews. However shortly before leaving for the cinema I read a two sentence review from the Financial Times' film critic which more or less said that it was not worth the time or effort or the cost of a ticket. Being the bolshy PPP that I am, I ignored his rant and went to see for myself. The film is the first feature in the English language from Korean director Chan-wook Park, a fest fave for his stylish 'vengeance trilogy' which includes cult classic "Oldboy". Also responsible for the more recent "Thirst" with its priest turned vampire, the viewer is aware of his blood-soaked and oddball propensities, and I for one approached this movie with hopeful anticipation. For that reason alone it was something of a disappointment as he introduced us to the deep dark secrets of the Stoker family -- an interesting choice of surname, even if its vampiric resonance is only tangentially relevant here.
The center of the action is Mia Wasikowska playing the puzzling and sullen India, whose 18th birthday is marred by the sudden death of her beloved father in an inexplicable car accident. Unlike her strong previous roles as Alice and Jane Eyre, where one could sense a precocious intelligence, here she is something of a mystery and not a particularly interesting one. She is slightly estranged from her flighty mother played by the elegant but empty Nicole Kidman. (Parenthetically it is a little peculiar to watch her forty-something character played with the botoxed and filled face of a 21-year old.) Into the household arrives Uncle Charlie, a relation India never knew she had -- her father's younger brother. This immediately creates expectations of an updated version of Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt", where the youngster's original delight in her new uncle morphs into fear as his murderous past unveils itself. However, this is far from the case here, Park makes us wait until well past the half-way mark to discover where the plot will take us. The film's first half is a puzzling combination of estrangement, time shifting backflashes, and various versions of the same scenario, to the extent that we wonder what is real and what is not. When the 'big reveal' comes we discover that not only is Uncle Charlie a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but that his murderous tendencies are embraced by young India as well. Her hormonal teenage angst is mainly a cover for latent sociopathic behaviour, as if killer genes are hereditary.
Charlie is played by British actor Matthew Goode, most recently seen here in the five-part "Dancing on the Edge", and I am not convinced his bland and fairly expressionless demeanor make him the right face for the role. As he casually sexually or mentally seduces both mother and daughter -- his piano duet with India verges on paedophilia -- we grow more and more uneasy, not knowing how to empathize with three blatantly unsympathetic characters. I must add that I think it strange to portray a suburban American family by employing two Australians and a Brit, as well as another Australian in the role of the quickly-dispatched visiting Aunt Jane. This is not to say that the acting left much to be desired, but the three are all playing such mysterious ciphers, that it is impossible to believe in them or root for them. Wasikowska probably did a damn good portrayal of the deeply confused India, but her character is ultimately too weird and hollow to comprehend.
Park brought along his regular Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung who has photographed this farrago with undeserved skill and beauty. Some of the images like India's brushing Kidman's hair which then morphs into long wild grass are striking -- too striking for the nasty nest of the Stoker's secrets. While I can't conclude that the FT's critic had it right, the film was certainly a come-down from the director's Korean best.