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Academy Award Winner Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode star in this “darkly wicked, beautifully executed mystery” (Los Angeles Times) by critically acclaimed filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy). Following the tragic death of her father, India Stoker meets her charismatic uncle, whom she never knew existed. When he moves in to comfort India and her mother, the two find that the newest member of their family might actually be their worst nightmare. (taken from the PR.)

Now I'm not much for film criticism (I leave that to Gabe Powers), but long-time readers may know that I’m a big fan of Park Chan-wook’s Korean output, particularly his adaptation of the Japanese manga Oldboy. In Stoker, his first English-language feature, he treads the familiar ground of the dark psychological thriller working from a script by Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break fame) and Erin Cressida Wilson. In doing so Park and his team have crafted a densely layered film deserving of multiple viewings, full of the deft touches and symbolism that are the hallmark of his style, ensuring fans of his previous work will be immediately at home with these audio-visual calling cards. Technically there is much to admire, not least Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography and Clint Mansell’s score, but the cast are also laudable, particularly Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode in roles that could easily have been underplayed and overplayed respectively.

It would seem that Stoker is also a film that generates a great deal of discussion. Without giving too much away, I've read some interesting interpretations of the film on the Internet, with many drawing some very literal conclusions from the title's allusions to vampirism. I can almost understand people drawing those conclusions - after all, Charlie is never seen eating food, he drinks red wine, holds an almost hypnotic sway over women, and has a preternatural ability to move from place to place - but for me the title is clearly figurative. This is where the other star of the film comes into play: the editing. The removal of the odd line here, the trimming of a few frames there… these excisions conspire to create an even greater sense of ambiguity than was present in the original shooting script (if the deleted scenes are any indication). I'm getting into spoiler territory here though, which is something I was keen to avoid with this review. Revealing too many of the film's secrets would diminish the effectiveness of its twists and turns, so I'll finish by simply asking that you pause to give thought to Stoker the next time you're browsing your Blu-ray retailer of choice. Any doubts I had about Park's ability to deal with the language barrier have been banish, and I can't wait to see what his next project has to offer.

Video


I saw Stoker projected digitally at my local cinema and was very impressed by the quality of the image. I'm happy to report that the Blu-ray release mirrors that presentation, offering up some truly sumptuous visuals. At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that the film was shot digitally, so pristine is the 2.40:1 (1080/24p AVC) transfer, but Stoker was actually shot on 35mm and the resultant image is wonderfully textured. The cinematography from Park's long-time collaborator Chung Chung-hoon is particularly striking, utilising all manner of visually arresting techniques that are further enhanced by non-invasive computer generated imagery and marvellous editing. There is plenty of fine detail in facial close-ups and clothing, while loose stands of hair and environmental elements such as blades of grass and raindrops are resolved with remarkable clarity.

With a great deal of the action occurring inside the austere confines of the Stoker household, the film's palette is actually quite restrained for the most part, but there are occasional splashes of brilliant colour peppered throughout. Contrast is just about perfect and blacks are inky without sacrificing shadow detail, something that is of particular importance during one of the film's pivotal scenes. To repeat my earlier comments, Stoker is a visual feast; inventive, artistic, and thematically similar to much of Park's other work. The Blu-ray presentation is remarkably effective in translating this to the home environment, making for one of the best looking releases I've seen this year.

Audio


As impressed as I was with the film's visuals during the theatrical showing, I was even more dazzled by the soundtrack. India's contention that she ‘hears things others cannot hear’ is fully realised in the film's sound design, which utilises every available channel to place even the subtlest detail with deliberate precision. Conversations, footsteps, the tick-tocking of a metronome, the sound of a knife on a chopping board, the sipping of wine... all of these innocuous, incidental sounds are treated with the utmost importance, given the sort of attention normally reserved for more obvious, in-your-face effects. Bass is robust when it needs to be - the roar of Charlie's sports car and the rumble of thunder spring immediately to mind - but it never overpowers the other elements of the mix. Dialogue is also well-prioritised and superbly rendered, not once sounding muddied or indistinct.

Music plays a huge part in Stoker's success, with Clint Mansell's score treading a fine line between light and melodic and dark and sinister. Fusing classical and modern elements, it evokes a range of emotions informed by India's journey, but there's an omnipresent tension that lends an ethereal creepiness to the proceedings. It's a wonderfully nuanced score and a testament to the composer's work that the CD is on almost constant play in my car, and has been since the film's release three months ago. Other highlights include a piano piece from Philip Glass - as performed by India and Charlie in the film - a fantastic track called 'Becomes the Colour' from violinist/hip-hop artist Emily Wells, the brilliant 'Summer Wine' by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, and even a touch of Verdi for good measure.

I wouldn't normally devote such a large portion of a review to the audio side of things, but I really was that impressed with Stoker's soundtrack. The majority of Park's films have ingenious sound design, and Stoker shares much in common with his 'Vengeance Trilogy' in its use of sound and music. I say this because its use of sound to describe the protagonist's environment reminds me of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the odd, often abstract effects evoke memories of Oldboy, and the pitch-perfect, piano-heavy score is reminiscent of Lady Vengeance. To cut a long story short, Stoker sounds just about perfect on Blu-ray.

Extras


The Blu-ray release includes a fairly healthy selection of bonus material, especially when you consider the film's relatively low-key status. The disc also features some wonderfully intricate menus that pay homage to the theatrical poster art (the same art that was originally going to be used for the sleeve).

  • Deleted Scenes: Three short deleted/extended scenes are included, and expand on several of the film's key moments.
  • Stoker: A Filmmaker's Journey: This is a genuinely entertaining and informative making-of featurette that deals with writing, development, casting, visuals, and the experience of working director Park. All of the principals are interviewed, along with Park himself (here subtitled in English).
  • Photography by Mary Ellen Mark: A comprehensive collection of on-set photographs that can be watched as a slideshow or manually advanced.
  • London Theatre Design: This is a stills gallery with a difference. For Stoker's London premiere the Curzon was decorated to mirror the film’s design aesthetic and the results are pretty impressive.
  • Theatrical Behind-the-Scenes: A number of short featurettes are collected under this heading, but much of the footage is recycled from the longer ‘Filmmaker’s Journey’. However, there are a couple of completely original pieces:
    • The Making of the Limited Edition Poster: A fascinating look at the creation of the poster set to music by Emily Wells.
    • Mysterious Characters: A very short piece featuring the cast and crew talking about the characters.
    • Director's Vision: If ever Park Chan-wook was in need of an ego boost he need only watch this featurette, as everyone involved enthuses about his greatness.
    • Designing the Look: Production designer Thérèse DePrez is interviewed and the cast and crew praise her efforts.
    • Creating the Music: Composer Clint Mansell discusses his approach to film scoring and the experience of working with director Park.
  • Red Carpet Premiere: This menu is divided into two sub-sections:
    • Red Carpet Footage: Over fifteen minutes of footage from the Korean premiere set to music by Emily Wells. A lot of the running time is simply footage of people arriving and singing autographs, but Park, Wasikowska and Wells are also interviewed.
    • ’Becomes the Colour’ Performance by Emily Wells: The artist performs a live rendition of her trackin front of what looks like an assembly of journalists (judging by the sea of glowing laptop screens).
  • Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots: A comprehensive collection of trailers and TV spots are the cherry on top of the bonus package.

Overall


In the hands of a lesser director Stoker could have been a bland, dare I say pedestrian thriller, but Park Chan-wook's elevates it to another level. At this point Stoker is hands-down my favourite film of the year, with only Cloud Atlas and The Place Beyond the Pines resonating with anything like the intensity of this film. While the tragically low domestic box office take was bolstered by worldwide ticket sales the film failed to recoup its production budget, let alone the cost of advertising. As much as I’d like to label its underperformance as ‘mystifying’, I think Fox struggled to effectively market the film and a limited theatrical run didn’t help matters.

Thankfully we live in a time when many overlooked films gain popularity on home video, so there’s some hope that Stoker will find deserved recognition on DVD and Blu-ray. The superb audio-visual quality of this release certainly shouldn’t hurt its cause. If you’re in the mood for a ‘Hitchcockian’ thriller with superior visuals, stunning audio and a collection of surprisingly informative bonus material, Stoker should be right at the top of your ‘to buy’ list.

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

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