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Few filmmakers from other countries who develop an international reputation are able to resist the inevitable invitation to come and make movies in America. And who can blame them? Yet that invitation is too often a Faustian bargain in which the filmmaker gives up control and ends up doing sub-standard work on films that exploit only the most salient aspect of his talent. Just ask John Woo.

Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook won a legion of fans for his “Vengeance” trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Stoker is his American debut, and for most of its running time the last thing you would want to accuse it of is lack of control. In spinning out its story—after her father dies on her 18th birthday, a girl meets an uncle she never knew existed and comes under his unhealthy spell—there’s barely a single shot that is merely functional. Every moment of the film appears to have been elaborately and purposefully composed, usually beautifully so. (One of the most memorable: The camera tracks down a woman’s long hair in closeup, invisibly transforming into the image of a field of summer wheat.)

Park’s Korean films are known for their moments of ferocity, but I was relieved to find that there was little of that here. He creates an unsettling atmosphere with small, sure strokes, like the image of a belt being removed from a man’s pants. Despite having a name cast—Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode—there is minimal dialogue, and what there is is often delivered in hushed tones, compelling you to lean into the movie.

But in the end, Park is working with a script he didn’t write, and all his careful work gets us nowhere as memorable as the trip that brings us there. It’s all homage to his influences: Alfred Hitchcock, especially Shadow of a Doubt, some Terence Malick (Badlands), a little David Lynch. Stoker is a beautiful film to sit through, despite its horrific moments, but it’s more of a calling card to get future projects than a work a filmmaker of his reputation could take much satisfaction in.

Watch the trailer for Stoker

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