Middle-aged malaise and technophobia collide with potentially catastrophic consequences in brutal comedy of manners Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인, Wanbyeokhan Tain). The hugely popular Italian film Perfetti Sconosciuti has already been remade in several territories, proving the universality of its conceit. The Korean edition, cleaving closely to the original, demonstrates once again that nowhere is safe in the modern wired world where public and private personas are beginning to blur as lives lived online become realer than real.
The action takes place (almost) entirely within a swanky Seoul apartment owned by plastic surgeon Seok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) and his psychiatrist wife Ye-jin (Kim Ji-soo). The couple, along with their teenage daughter (Ji Woo), have been living in the apartment for some time but haven’t gotten around to inviting their dearest friends so this evening’s celebration will be something like a belated housewarming. The other guests will be friends of Seok-ho’s from all the way back in elementary school – elite lawyer Tae-soo (Yoo Hae-jin) and his wife Soo-hyun (Yum Jung-ah), “entrepreneur” Joon-mo (Lee Seo-jin) and his much younger wife Se-kyung (Song Ha-yoon), and recently divorced Young-bae (Yoon Kyung-ho) who is supposed to be bringing his new girlfriend, but disappoints everyone by turning up alone. Part way through the evening, Ye-jin suggests a kind of party game in which they’ll all put their phones face up on the table and agree to share any messages or calls that come in. Of course, this is a game you can’t afford to refuse to play lest everyone think you’ve something to hide, but total honesty is not always advisable even amongst friends.
Despite their supposed intimacy built up over a couple of decades of similar evenings and get togethers, everyone is very much in public mode and maintaining appropriate levels of decorum. Which is why Tae-soo and Soo-hyun are at great pains to hide the fact their relationship is at breaking point thanks to the recent arrival of Tae-soo’s mother while Ye-jin and Seok-ho also have obvious problems, especially when it comes to the upbringing of their teenage daughter. Despite being a psychiatrist with full knowledge of boundaries and the harm that can be done crossing them, Ye-jin has been going through her daughter’s things and not liking what she finds. Nevertheless, everyone wants to have a pleasant evening, so the fights are on hold and politeness very much in the ascendent.
And then the phones start ringing. It might be a matter of debate exactly how much privacy one should want or expect in a marriage, with friends, or from the world in general, but everyone has something or other they’d rather wasn’t brought up at a dinner party and so showcasing one’s phone is likely to be quite a bad idea. That might be the attraction of the game, but no one seriously wants marital breakdown across the dinner table, nor do they want to hear about medical procedures, outings they weren’t invited to, workplace drama, or familial strife.
The messages, as pregnant with melodrama as they might be, begin to expose the simmering conflicts between this now disparate group of “friends”. The petty class resentments and awkward political differences that politeness sees fit to gloss over become harder to ignore when flashed up by an inconvenient notification or a call the other party is not aware is being broadcast (breaching their privacy too in the process). Realising secrets have been kept from you can be hurtful, but it’s even worse realising that you disappoint yourself in proving exactly why the secret was kept in the first place.
It’s tempting to blame everything on technology, that if no one had a phone no one would be hurt but the truth is that married or not everyone has a right to their secrets and a separate, individual life to which no one but themselves is privy. Perhaps it isn’t so much lies which are the enemy, but the expectation of intimacy and that sharing your life with someone necessarily means the entirety of it. In any case, the film (like the other incarnations) opts for an ironic ending which undoes everything which had gone before, erasing the awkwardness of exposed secrets with a return to a more comfortable reality in which everyone is superficially happier pretending to be happy in blissful ignorance. Perhaps sometimes it really is better not to ask too many questions.
Intimate Strangers was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)