A group of friends meet up one night for a dinner party. The hosts – a psychiatrist played by Kim Ji-soo (This Charming Girl) and her plastic surgeon husband (Cho Jin-woong, Believer) – have recently moved into a lavish apartment. When the other guests arrive at their home, a familiar sort of mood is established: relaxed and friendly, since many of them have known each other from childhood, and yet with tension beneath the surface, as their lives have diverged awkwardly in middle age. In one sense, they know each other intimately. But – as with all friendships, or even marriages – there are sides of themselves that they would never think of showing to each other.
What might have been just another ordinary evening is given a jolt when the psychiatrist proposes a sort of game. Each of them are to put their mobile phones up onto the table, and whenever a message or call arrives, they are to share it with the rest of the group. Messages are to be read aloud, and calls put on speaker phone. It’s more of a dare than a game, really, but each guest finds it hard to object too strongly without looking like a person who harbors guilty secrets. So they all agree to it out loud, while at the same time privately hoping that nothing too embarrassing comes out at dinner.
A remake of the very popular Italian film Perfect Strangers (2016), Intimate Strangers has been described jokingly by many Korean viewers as a kind of horror movie. After all, few things are more frightening than having your inner secrets exposed. A well-structured script (that sticks close to the original), sharp execution by director Lee Jae-kyoo (Fatal Encounter, TV drama Beethoven Virus) and a knockout cast make for a film that is bursting with tension and consistently intriguing. Released at the end of October, the modestly-budgeted movie benefitted from strong word of mouth and sold more than 5 million tickets – a very impressive total.
There’s no question that this ensemble work benefits from strong acting across the board, with an experienced cast that includes Yeom Jeong-ah (A Tale of Two Sisters), Lee Seo-jin (Damo), Song Ha-yoon (Dangerously Excited), and Yoon Gyeong-ho (Okja). But somehow it is Yoo Hae-jin in the role of an uptight husband in a tension-filled marriage who has made the biggest impression on viewers. This is not because his acting outshines the others – he knows better than to attempt that sort of thing. But it’s true that when thinking back on this film, it’s his natural, heartfelt performance that jumps most immediately to mind.
Probably the average Korean viewer would tell you that the situations portrayed in this story feel very specific to Korea, given its reputation as one of the most wired nations on earth. But in truth, this is probably more a testament to the story’s universality. In just two years, remakes of Perfect Strangers have been released or announced in Spain (by Alex de la Iglesia!), France, Turkey, Mexico, India, Germany, Sweden and Qatar. (English-language remake rights, purchased by the now-defunct Weinstein Company, remain in limbo.)
Clearly the central concept of this film hits a nerve for contemporary audiences. It illustrates how technology, and mobile phones in particular, have nestled into our lives to the point that they hold our most intimate secrets. (The fact that large corporations have access to these secrets is something that the plot leaves unexplored.) On the other hand, the filmmakers’ observation that any person is composed of three separate selves – public, private and secret – has been true to the human condition for millennia. So Intimate/Perfect Strangers has found success with an effective blend of the timely and the universal.