It’s been quite some time since the rambling indie slacker road trip comedy Daytime Drinking, South Korean director Noh Yeong-Seok’s debut feature, disarmed audiences with its low key deadpan humor. So much so that many filmgoers who behold the director’s next film, INTRUDERS, may not realize a connection exists. For fans of Daytime Drinking who have been eagerly anticipating a follow up, INTRUDERS begins on a strikingly similar note as its predecessor. Once again a lone male protagonist prepares to set out by bus to a remote locale besieged by inhospitable climates. And like in Daytime Drinking, this central figure plays the straight man amidst a barrage of hilariously awkward gaffs owing to an unapologetic incompetence or blatant disregard for social boundaries of those he encounters. This time around the protagonist is a bit older (So too is the director, Noh) and is setting out with more of a purpose: to isolate himself from distractions so that he can finish an important bit of writing, rapidly approaching or perhaps past its deadline. Although this trip also starts out humorously, it isn’t long before a sudden shift in tone takes the film on a new, tightly wound and rather treacherous path.
While I’ve seen the film touted as both a humorous thriller and a suspenseful comedy, it is not so much a blending of genres. It is rather like a gently idling comedy that is suddenly rammed into by a runaway toboggan of a suspense thriller. Once the mood changes, a few funny exchanges show up here and there, but never gain much of a footing against a jagged incline of unease. Situations are on the verge of going bad at any moment and when they do, they always stand to get worse.
Tension begins after Sang-jin arrives in the vicinity of an inn he will borrow from family friends in order to devote himself to his writing. This is after surviving the aforementioned bus ride, shared with a just-released convict who happens to be from the same area Sang-jin is heading to. While taking in the surroundings of his temporary lodgings, Sang-jin takes a misstep which leads to the discovery of an ominous underground chamber, the first sign of trouble and the first hint of a motif that there can be more to a scene than what is found on the surface. Soon after, the appearance of an intimidating pair of armed men, as well as a group of skiers looking for respite from an incoming storm disrupt his solitude. These disparate groups orbit around one another as an increasingly testy Sang-jin tries to navigate a clear path til things escalate into deadly and mystery-laden confrontation.
Noh puts some classic suspense truisms to work: The slow unfolding of situations that are seemingly one way yet shape up to become something else, the focus on an everyman thrust into a life or death situation from which he must rise to the occasion or face grave consequences, and an ending that may leave as many new questions as it does answers.
For someone directing his first suspense film, Noh is intuitive behind the camera and in the editing room. He has not just penned an exciting story, he has expressed it in a visually exciting fashion. At one moment, Sang-jin moves from a corner of the screen toward the camera, shotgun in hand, making us momentarily feel like prey. In another, he waits glued to a wall for an uncertain assailant, the only signs of approach being the slow thud of footsteps growing nearer and nearer. It’s all strung together by a fast-paced electronic beat driven original score, composed and performed by Noh himself.
While Noh humbly dismissed any deep meaning within the film, I’m a firm believer in subtext rising to the fore, even if it’s subconsciously. So when one of the skiers expresses her annoyance at radio reports of increasing tension between South and North Korean forces, preoccupied with finding a source of alcohol to wash away the persisting headache of an exhausting night, I have to wonder if something is being said about a situation at large of individuals committing themselves to blissful ignorance despite alarmingly hostile threats right outside the door. If that is the case, it’s subtle enough to let slip by while enjoying the film’s constantly swerving path.
One thing is for certain: Noh, like his body of work thus far, is deceptively sharp. I can’t wait for the next road he leads us along.
Intruders was shown at the 2014 Film Comments Selects series held at Lincoln Center’s film center.
Me on twitter = @mondocurry
Me on twitter = @mondocurry