INTIMATE STRANGERS (FILM REVIEW)

The smartphone changed our lives forever. And as a character remarks in Intimate Strangers, it’s like a black box of its owner, full of messages, emails and media they’ve collected. So is it any surprise that the content within might shock some of our closest friends or loved ones?

An adaptation from the 2016 Italian original Perfect Strangers, Lee Jae-Kyoo’s Korean remake is a compelling piece full of deft acting, while investigating the belief that we have three lives: one public, one private, and one secret. At a housewarming party, a group of 40-year-long schoolmates and their wives play a risky game, by revealing all the notifications and putting all calls on speaker at the dinner table. Not a good idea? We hear you.

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The dramedy is an excellent showcase of what happens when a director keen on nuance fulfills it with a talented ensemble. Because the veteran actors here floor their performances. Furtive glances, meaningful looks, timed misdirections, all come alive in the apartment. There are displays of innuendo and habit that only decades-long friends can develop, and Lee’s teases out every ounce of chemistry from his cast.

With a short backstory, we quickly get up to speed on the relationship between the men when they were boys. Then we shuttle forward to present day, where the wives are brought into the group. Lee does a nimble job of establishing the set-up with just the right amount of script. By the time we begin dinner, we already know that psychiatrist wife Ye-Jin (Kim Ji-Soo) can’t control her own daughter, lawyer Tae-Soo (Yu Hae-Jin) has a strained intimacy with wife Soo-Hyun (Yum Jung-Ah), while entrepreneur Joon-Mo (Lee Seo-Jin) is sexually ravenous with his (Song Ha-Yoon).

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All seems well until Ye-Jin suggests the game, and it’s not as straightforward a downward slide as a jaded audience might think. There’s comedic turns when an ex texts that he has problem with an erection, and another when bachelor Young-Bae’s (Yoon Kyung-Ho) text tone is surprisingly cutesy. There are also sincere revelations like the one Seok-Ho (Cho Jin-Woong) has with his wife while cleaning a spill. But it is the juicy scandals that draw the audience in, like illicit gossip, and challenges a different mix of relationships within the group.

Intimate Strangers does well in weaving the interpersonal network between husbands, wives, and the friendships they have in an inclusive manner. It plays up the dynamics of reunions to a fine point, where not everyone present might necessarily like each other and yet act like they do. And at these occasions, even without the mobile game, topics can easily go rogue and stir up hurt or suspicion.

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Writer Bae Se-young has done an admirable job of steering away from a preachy script. The tone never becomes too judgmental, as characters are truly realised with all-too-human faults like contradictions and hypocrisy. As characters like Tae-Soo and Joon-Mo are shady with their loyalty, their exaggerated ire with their own spouse speaks more about their guilt than their spouses. But most enjoyable to watch is Soo-Hyun’s spiral from obliging housewive to desperate lover. Yum’s performance is hard to look away from.

As the film hurtles its way to the end, there’s more than a few tricks up its sleeve. With all the drama, one might think it’s going to be capped with a straightforward disaster or fairytale ending. But the final portion is unexpected and satisfyingly reflective, and raises more questions about how much we need to know about our loved ones, and if full-disclosure is an idealism that does more harm than good.

Rating: 4*

Reunion goes to ruin over a game of smartphone truth-or-dare. The film brings to surface human relationships and contemplates the value and role of honesty.

First published: www.movieXclusive.com

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