Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Intimate Strangers

I've beat the drum about how foreign film distribution has changed a ton over the last decade a lot, but the path of this one is just genuinely weird in ways that kind of makes me dizzy. At first, I noted that this was the sort of film which a few years ago might have done well in the boutique houses, but instead of having a run in its home country, it gets snapped up immediately, and before it's been out in its native South Korea for much more than a week, it's playing American theaters courtesy of an Australian distributor that is also subtitling it in Chinese for its North American release. There's a lot to unpack there - would it eventually get broader play in the U.S. if it had had time to go through the old-school distributors, winding up with Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia, or Samuel Goldwyn, and playing places that specialize in good-for-you foreign films rather than multiplexes that play Asian movies that have been rushed to play in front of expatriate/immigrant audiences before they can get it pirated? Or would it just have played in front of whiter audiences that way? Is this just an example of how the old system of foreign film distribution is breaking down?

Well, it's not just that, because the end credits reveal that this is a remake of a 2016 Italian film, which played Tribeca that year and got pretty good reviews internationally. You would think that Perfetti Sconoscuiuti ("Perfect Strangers") might have gotten U.S. distribution, although, given the speed of the old system, it's entirely possible that it could still be working its way through the pipeline, with the labels mentioned above trying to strike a bargain. Even more than the Korean remake, that seems like something the art-house guys would go for.

(Fun trivia: Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" seemed like an odd song to be a ringtone which becomes part of the soundtrack in the Korean movie, but it apparently traces back to the Italian one, and I wonder how it works there.)

So here's the thing - while I'm writing the review for this one, I get an email from a publicist stating that a Mexican version ("Perfectos Desconocidos") will be released by Lionsgate/Pantelion on January 11th. The Italian version is barely mentioned, as an afterthought at the end of the email, and although a part of me thinks that this is kind of insanely close for two versions of the same movie to come out in the U.S., part of me is also thinking that the overlap for these two movies is basically guys like me who are going to use the heck out of their AMC Stubs A-List even if they're the only person in the theater who needs the subtitles. Pantelion and Tangren may be releasing what is effectively the same movie two months apart, but they're targeting two different audiences.

But are we done? No! Those two remakes are apparently the sixth and seventh takes on this material - it has already been remade in Greece, Spain, Turkey, and France. The Mexican one, in fact, is opening there about a year after the Spanish one opened in its home country (heck, it played Mexico in December of 2017). And here's the kicker - at least a couple of these movies have a lot of talent behind them. The Spanish one is directed by Álex de la Iglesia and the French one by Fred Cavayé, and while I guess de la Iglesia doesn't have quite the fandom in North America that he used to and Cavayé is basically a guy who made one movie that got some attention here (Point Blank) even though Mea Culpa also made it over… It's not unreasonable to expect those versions to have gotten some North American attention. Heck, it turns out I was pretty impressed with The Fatal Encounter from the Korean director, so it's not like he's a no-one.

What to make of this? I honestly don't know. Maybe this is just a good idea for a movie that plays better when localized, and the Italian studio was smart enough to realize this and started to franchise it immediately, and in America that led to someone like The Weinstein Company getting both remake and distribution rights and deciding to sit on the original. It's happened before. Maybe that's what's happening now, and it's not just a matter of the pipeline from Europe to the United States being a dated anachronism while the one from Asia (minus Japan) is fast for the hits but invisible to those who have traditionally watched foreign films… But I think that may be more the case than not, and when the original Perfetti Sconoscuiuti and its more notable variations do arrive in the U.S., they'll just quietly be on VOD or some streaming service with zero fanfare. This doesn't seem ideal.

Ah, well. In unrelated but amusing news, the director of this movie, Lee Jae-kyu, has chosen a Western name ("J.Q.") that both tickles me and makes me feel very silly when I include both at once.

Wanbyeokhan Tain (Intimate Strangers)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2018 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DCP)

Intimate Strangers is in its second week atop the South Korean box office and I readily admit that it's hard to imagine a remake doing the same here (or a threemake, considering this is an adaptation of the Italian Perfect Strangers); it's the sort of relationship-oriented movie for adults that has a hard time finding a place these days. It's a pretty good one, though, and I can't fault it for using kind of a cheap trick to keep people talking afterward. It works, after all.

Doctors Seok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) and Ye-jin (Kim Ji-soo) - him in cosmetic surgery, her in psychiatry - have just moved into a fancy new place, and as such are having a housewarming party with the guys Seok-ho has been friends with since meeting in kindergarten 40 years ago and their partners: Cranky lawyer Tae-so (Yu Hae-jin) and his wife Soo-hyun (Yun Jung-ah), who has been engrossed in a poetry class of late; serial entrepreneur Joon-mo (Lee Seo-jin) and younger wife Se-kyung (Song Ha-yoon), whose family helped finance his new restaurant; and Young-bae (Yoon Kyung-ho), a genial fellow despite being recently divorced and out of work, whose girlfriend can't make it because she's sick. There was a fifth member of the group, but he recently got caught in an affair with a girl half his age, and when the guys comment that he was foolish to leave his phone unlocked, Ye-jin suggests a game - they leave their phones on the table so that everyone can see all the messages and notifications, and calls get answered on speakerphone.

Even if this wasn't a direct remake of another film, there's a long and storied history of friendly gatherings going right to hell because something throws the equilibrium off or someone unexpected shows up. Here, the "game" with the phones is certainly more than a bit artificial - it is the sort of thing that people might talk about but easily find an excuse to bow out of in real life - but it turns out to be a nifty way of maintaining focus: A text message or call can pop up, wreak some havoc, and then not hang around, unnecessarily stealing the spotlight from the characters whose everyday hypocrisy is supposed to be the focal point, or be awkwardly shuffled off-stage. There are certainly downsides to this sort of upper-middle-class melodrama only briefly stepping outside of its comfort zone, but it certainly allows a piece with a potentially unwieldy ensemble to do good work without getting pulled in other directions.

Full review at EFC.

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