Intruders (Jo-nan-ja-deul): Rotterdam Review

Derivative, droll Korean thriller has reasonable remake potential.

Korean writer-director Young-Seok Noh's sophomore feature had its European debut at the Dutch festival.

Though its title and premise suggests yet another run-of-the-mill home-invasion affair, fitfully tense South Korean low-budgeter  Intruders (Jo-nan-ja-deul) does eventually find some new angles on well-worn genre material. And while writer-director-composer Noh's belated follow-up to Locarno-competing Daytime Drinking (2008) is too lacking in marquee-friendly star-power to make much of a splash at home on release later this year, it's a solid choice for festivals and digital platforms trading towards the smarter end of the thriller spectrum. International exposure at Toronto last fall and now Rotterdam will help on both fronts, and there's sufficient promising material here for a possible Stateside remake.

One major hurdle confronts any such adaptation, however, namely the way Noh exploits a very specific geographical location: Gangwon province in his country's mountainous north, bordering North Korea. Ever-volatile tensions between the two nations are mentioned occasionally in news reports from the first scenes, but become increasingly important to the story as the blood-spattered climax unfolds. Indeed, the picture emerges as more a matter of homeland invasion than home-invasion in the usual Hollywood sense. Noh -- whose main character is a screenwriter -- also trades, in post-modern fashion, on memories of those countless movies where city dwellers venture into remote rural areas and somehow offend the locals, triggering drastic consequences.

Daytime Drinking, which also revolved around a young man from the capital visiting the snowy countryside, played such social frictions for laughs in a deadpan Jarmusch-ian way. There's also plenty of humor in Noh's sophomore enterprise, but of a much darker and more unsettling hue. The first example of this occurs very early on, when Sang-Jin (Suk-Ho Jun) takes a bus-ride to the out-of-season pension where he's hoping to finish his latest screenplay. He's befriended by a particularly solicitous fellow-passenger, the garrulous Hak-Su (Tae-Kyung Ho), whose attentions quickly become more nuisance than help. Noh emphasizes the social distinctions between these two bachelors in their early thirties, and Sang-Jin's slight snobbishness is one way of indicating that this meek protagonist somehow deserves the ordeal into which he's about to be pitched. Another is his first act when entering the cabin, namely the callous underfoot crushing of a harmless bug.

But Sang-Jin's mishaps, most of arise from his maladroit interactions with a pair of taciturn hunters and a trio of boozy young tourists, are a rather extreme form of karmic payback. And as the body-count rises, Noh has some difficulty juggling the various tones and moods of his screenplay, which knowingly nods to the likes of Misery and Deliverance while bearing certain accidental similarities to Denis Villeneuve's much heavier, bleaker Prisoners from last year. Several of the minor characters are thinly-sketched, with the sole significant female on view, En-Sun Han's Yu-Mi, particularly two-dimensional. His overall directorial approach, with his self-penned, doomily susurrant score heavily underlining every menacing development, cleaves very closely to established genre conventions at pretty much every turn.

Proceedings thus tend to have a distinctly hand-me-down feel (even the title echoes that of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's Clive Owen vehicle from 2011) until the focus cleverly takes a geo-political turn in the final reel. He does make judicious use of his one real trump-card, however, namely Oh's consistently engaging and intriguing performance. In a picture which does mainly manage to keep the audience guessing, even if satisfactory answers aren't ultimately forthcoming, his Hak-Su is amusing, sinister, enigmatic and sympathetic, sometimes all in the same scene.

Venue: International Festival Rotterdam (Bright Future)
Production companies: StONEwork
Cast: Suk-Ho Jun, Tae-Kyung Oh, Moo-Sung Choi, Eun-Sun Han
Director/Screenwriter/Music: Young-Seok Noh
Producers: Sun-Hee Choi, Tae-Sung Jeong
Director of photography: Jae-In Park
Production designer: Si-Hoon Lee
Costume designer: Su-Jin Lee
Editor: Soo-Dan Park
Sales: Finecut Co, Seoul
No MPAA rating, 99 minutes