Note: Originally written for Flixchatter, this review is formatted differently than most of my work.
The Festival staffperson who introduced Intruderspitched it as being “Fargo by way of South Korea.” She wasn’t far off, at least when considering the ways both films generate humor through flawed characters and unexpected plot twists. That each includes sweeping wintry landscapes and impressive cinematography facilitates the comparison, as well.
In Intruders, writer Sang-jin (Jun Suk-ho) takes a bus to the Gangwon province in South Korea’s mountainous north, where he plans to stay at a closed and otherwise unoccupied bed and breakfast that belongs to his boss’s family. While alone at the resort, Sang-jin hopes to finally complete his screenplay, for which his boss is impatiently waiting. Unfortunately, the writer faces significant challenges, including writers’ block, a talkative ex-convict named Hak-su (Oh Tae-kyung), two scary hunters, a group of young skiers who think he manages the resort, and a local police officer (Choi Moo-soung). It only gets worse when he becomes increasingly convinced that the bed and breakfast is unsafe.
Along the way, Intruders reminds us of several mainstream films, including, of course, Fargo(1996), but also Prisoners (2013) and Misery (1990), a project writer/director Noh Young-seokjokingly references in Intruders’ first act. All are favorable comparisons, largely because Nohmakes many strong authorial and directorial decisions. Start with his screenplay, which impressively shows not tells the most important characters. We know Sang-jin intimately, despite only passing references to his backstory and limited dialogue explaining his current motivations. Then, we see him change through carefully developed scenes.
Hak-su and the cop are similarly well written, but Noh struggles a bit with his secondary characters. The hunters are enigmas and most of the skiers are stereotypically inconsiderate youngsters, indistinguishable from one another. Only Yu-mi (Han En-sun) is given some treatment, but even she is too thinly defined, what with only two character traits: angry and shrill.
Yet, Noh Young-seok’s screenplay mostly overcomes flaws in development of secondary characters, partially because it masterfully foreshadows plot twists, so well, in fact, that we are never certain what will happen next, but also never stunned into disbelief by new developments. In his long opening sequence, for instance, Noh shows Sang-jin’s obliviousness, playing it for humor but also staying with it long enough that we know it will be important later. Frequent newscasts foreshadow what is to come, as do many other examples I will not directly cite.
That Intruders is often laugh out loud funny, even in its darkest moments, helps as well. As do the actors, all of whom are perfectly understated. Special mention to Oh Tae-kyung who plays Hak-su so skillfully that we can never be certain whether or not the character is an innocent bystander, a villain or something in between.
Neither the screenplay nor the actors are Intruders greatest merit, however. Noh’s direction is. Take for example, his camera work. By frequently placing subjects in the center of the screen, and by using lengthy point of view shots, the director increases our sense of intimacy with his characters. Plus, he keeps the camera perfectly still for the majority of the film, only to move it in bursts of lengthy pans, arcs and editing cuts, techniques that heighten or lessen tension fittingly. As just one more example of Noh’s directorial talent,Intruders’ ambiguous symbolism works very well; when, at one point, Noh cuts away to a close up of a spider web, we have to wonder: is Sang-jun the spider or the trapped prey?
The director is so good that we can overlook Intruders’ unsatisfying jump cut to end credits or its inconsistent use of telephones. No matter its few minor flaws, this film is very good.
P.S. So far, Intruders lacks US distribution. Hopefully that changes.