Suspense-filled and gorgeously picturesque, quirky thriller Intruders (조난자들) is director Noh Young-seok’s (노영석) second feature film following his critically acclaimed Daytime Drinking (낮술).
Appearing within the ‘Korean Cinema Today – Vision’ category at BIFF 2013 following a world premiere at Toronto, Intruders has been likened to Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs due to the similar themes of disquieting locals and a house under siege.
While it never reaches those heights, director Noh’s film is indeed a refreshing change of pace. The foreboding dark alleys of Seoul have been replaced with stunning winter landscapes, while the isolation and bizarre behaviour of everyone involved provides a vastly different form of thriller. However, with its uneven pacing and unsatisfactory third act, Intruders never quite manages to fulfill its potential and as such is an entertaining rather than genre redefining entry.
In order to complete his screenplay undisturbed, writer Sang-jin (Jun Suk-ho (전석호) journeys into the remote countryside to stay at his boss’ cabin alone. Surrounded by snow-covered mountains and with the nearest town 30 minutes away, Sang-jin is certain he will finish his work before the deadline. Yet on the way he reluctantly befriends odd ex-con Hak-soo (Oh Tae-kyung (오태경) who is determined to form a relationship, while the arrival of young ski enthusiasts at the adjacent cabin complicate his plans further. More disturbing however are the hunters who stalk the surrounding area, creating a deep sense of unease. When Sang-jin discovers one of the young skiers has been murdered, a shocking chain of events are set in motion.
First and foremost, Intruders is an extremely attractive film. Director Noh frames each scene to make the most out the stunning country landscapes and the blanket white snow that engulfs it, and as such the film is consistently visually impressive. Locations also wonderfully evolve according to the context in which Sang-jin finds himself, as beautiful scenes suddenly become uncomfortable when awkward situations arise. It is remarkable how the isolated cabin changes from being a romanticised place of work to a source of terror, yet director Noh’s framing techniques and pacing succeed in slowly building a sense of foreboding that completely changes the atmosphere within the film. This is in no small part due to the quirky and downright weird characters that are introduced throughout the story, with the suspense and tension generated by their actions reaching palpable levels.
The assortment of characters within Intruders makes the film equal parts scary and darkly comic, as their unpredictable behaviour is constantly fascinating to watch unfold. Oh Tae-kyung is great as odd ex-con Hak-soo, genuinely leaving the audience wondering about his motivations through his ability to switch from overly-friendly to threatening in a heartbeat. Also within the mix are young and crude male skiers, a cop with a twisted sense of justice, and rugged hillbilly hunters whose disheveled appearance – coupled with their random gun shots in the wilderness – place everyone ill at ease. Only one character, that of the bitchy lone female skier, tends to ruin the story as she is so one-dimensional it’s continually frustrating. Her constant complaints and moans are initially amusing, but as the only woman in the script director Noh really should have elaborated her role further. Luckily however actor Jun Suk-ho is brilliant to watch as everyman Sang-jin. His reactions to the bizarre happenings and weird people around him are always compelling and entertaining, leading the audience through the minefield of weirdness as well as providing the story with central focus.
Yet for all the suspense and enjoyment, Intruders doesn’t quite manage to elevate itself into the realms it should. Director Noh has done remarkably well in constructing the premise but all too often he lingers on moments for too long rather than move to the next event. This is wonderful in terms of creating tension, yet these and earlier scenes could (or perhaps should) have been trimmed in editing to allow later events time to advance. Furthermore while plenty of clues and red herrings are subtly laced within the story, certain features really come out of left field that are simultaneously laughable and shocking. All these issues culminate in a finale that is quite underwhelming and lacking in satisfaction, a shame as for the most part Intruders is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable film.
Intruders is a wonderfully quirky tale of a screenwriter who ventures into the countryside yet gets more than he bargained for with the odd locals. Director Noh Young-seok’s second film is beautifully picturesque and consistently laced with dark humour throughout, with the bizarre situations the writer finds himself in compelling and entertaining. While the film never manages to capitalise on the great premise, for the most part Intruders is a fun, engaging and refreshing thriller.