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Intimate Strangers (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"An entirely different game of telephone."
4 stars

"Intimate Strangers" is in its second week atop the South Korean box office and I readily admit that it's hard to imagine a remake doing the same here (or a threemake, considering this is an adaptation of the Italian "Perfect Strangers"); it's the sort of relationship-oriented movie for adults that has a hard time finding a place these days. It's a pretty good one, though, and I can't fault it for using kind of a cheap trick to keep people talking afterward. It works, after all.

Doctors Seok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) and Ye-jin (Kim Ji-soo) - him in cosmetic surgery, her in psychiatry - have just moved into a fancy new place, and as such are having a housewarming party with the guys Seok-ho has been friends with since meeting in kindergarten 40 years ago and their partners: Cranky lawyer Tae-so (Yu Hae-jin) and his wife Soo-hyun (Yun Jung-ah), who has been engrossed in a poetry class of late; serial entrepreneur Joon-mo (Lee Seo-jin) and younger wife Se-kyung (Song Ha-yoon), whose family helped finance his new restaurant; and Young-bae (Yoon Kyung-ho), a genial fellow despite being recently divorced and out of work, whose girlfriend can't make it because she's sick. There was a fifth member of the group, but he recently got caught in an affair with a girl half his age, and when the guys comment that he was foolish to leave his phone unlocked, Ye-jin suggests a game - they leave their phones on the table so that everyone can see all the messages and notifications, and calls get answered on speakerphone.

Even if this wasn't a direct remake of another film, there's a long and storied history of friendly gatherings going right to hell because something throws the equilibrium off or someone unexpected shows up. Here, the "game" with the phones is certainly more than a bit artificial - it is the sort of thing that people might talk about but easily find an excuse to bow out of in real life - but it turns out to be a nifty way of maintaining focus: A text message or call can pop up, wreak some havoc, and then not hang around, unnecessarily stealing the spotlight from the characters whose everyday hypocrisy is supposed to be the focal point, or be awkwardly shuffled off-stage. There are certainly downsides to this sort of upper-middle-class melodrama only briefly stepping outside of its comfort zone, but it certainly allows a piece with a potentially unwieldy ensemble to do good work without getting pulled in other directions.

It also allows for some nifty pieces, comedic and otherwise. All of the couples have incoming calls that can feel like potential time bombs, with director "J.Q." Lee Jae-kyu and co-writer Bae Se-young mostly finding a way to avoid repetition not just in what they do, but how they do it: A couple are purely funny, although the one with perhaps the broadest, most weirdly gross joke also has the most bitter undercurrent, but it's maybe not as acutely painful as the one which is set up as the most classically farcical set-up that winds up becoming a sort of illuminating torture in practice, strung out in a way that communicates how, in a certain situation, a bit of simple truth-telling would seem to fix things up, but doing so is so terrifying that one lets it become destructive. Sure, the film likely argues that all secrets are like that, but maybe not so utterly as with this particular one.

The cast is, by and large, well-balanced, enough that it's hard to put any at the center or start thinking about how some dead weight might be removed. Song Ha-yoon and Lee Seo-jin maybe get short-changed a little by the script or editing - their particular situation doesn't come across as intuitively as the other couples' - but they emerge a little less like blank slates than they started, especially Song, who might seem instinctively lesser as the youngest member of the main cast. Cho Jin-woong and Kim Ji-soo are impressive in how they simultaneously reveal the fault lines in Seok-ho's and Ye-Jin's their marriage but also the careful way that they are trying to avoid them; there's maturity around the peril that might not otherwise be there. Certainly, Yum Jung-ah and Yu Hae-jin are playing an equally troubled marriage at a higher volume, but it's worth it to see just how Yum has Soo-hyun shatter. Yoon Kyung-ho doesn't have a dedicated partner, but he does a fine job of implying Young-bae is more hopeful guy with something to be angry about infecting him rather than good cheer stretched over anger.

This all unfolds against the background of a lunar eclipse, which on the one hand provides characters with an excuse to step out onto the the balcony and talk but also provides a thin, perhaps imagined, reason to pull an unusual ending, one which arguably renders a lot of what happened before meaningless. And yet, one can argue that it's doing this which allows them to examine the idea of secrets having tradeoffs, or that there may not be one answer to all situations. It's not entirely narratively satisfying and throws the audience for a loop - though it may be foreshadowed right at the start of the game - but it gives the audience questions to ask.

And truth be told, that's not always something this sort of black comedy always does - they're more likely stand above a problem and cast aspersions than struggle with actual ambiguity. "Intimate Strangers" may sometimes feel off or too much like the thought experiment it is, but it's entertaining even when it could just get away with being twisted.

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originally posted: 11/14/18 15:55:44
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User Comments

11/14/18 NICOLAS SURIEL I never laughed so loud in any movie so many times . Glad not to see a melodrama. 5 stars
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Directed by
  J.Q. Lee

Written by
  J.Q. Lee
  Se-young Bae

  Hae-jin Yu
  Jung-ah Yum
  Jin-woong Cho
  Ji-soo Kim
  Seo-Jin Lee
  Ha-Yoon Song
  Kyung-Ho Yoon

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