Following a disaffected writer seeking solace in some snowy South Korean mountains, Noh Young-seok’s Intruders starts off in the familiar realm of the Hong Sang-soo comedy, with an anxious hero bedeviled by social awkwardness and the perils of soju consumption. Yet it’s not long before things take a markedly morbid turn, the first of several switchbacks in this limber horror comedy, which grows increasingly intense without sacrificing the deadpan tone or its protagonist’s increasingly huffy exhaustion. Using personal differences, economic rifts, and familiar city-versus-country conflicts to lay the groundwork for a complex murder mystery, Intruders remains a consistently entertaining and surprising sophomore effort.
The film opens on lone traveler, Sang Jin (Jun Suk-ho), who’s trekking up to a friend’s bed and breakfast—closed for the winter—to finish up a writing project. Any expectations of peace and quiet are shattered, however, once his bus ride puts him in the orbit of the bedraggled, menacingly friendly Hak Soo (Oh Tae-kyung), fresh out of prison and desperate for conversation. Jin extricates himself, but after a pair of weirdo hunters turns his peaceful isolation into something more unsettling, he allows a band of unruly young skiers to rent out the other cabins. All this seems intended to disrupt our devoted author’s creative process, but it soon becomes apparent that there are much worse things in store.
In one of many reversals of expectation, Jin’s writer status ends up not being an important feature, only a surface quality in a film that’s full of characters defined by ultimately unimportant aesthetic markers—traits ensuring that they never get the chance to penetrate each other’s prickly hides. Each of these complete strangers thus becomes a potential murderer when Jin finds a body in the snow. In pursuing this method, Intruders sticks to its initial Agatha Christie-like scenario while also messing around with standard-issue thriller trappings. The bobbing and weaving is impressive, as is Noh’s ability to intercut that light comedy with taught suspense, conducted across the neatly-depicted space of the cabin and its snowy surroundings.
The film further muddies up its mystery with a nice formal trick, tossing in a series of external clues which may be pointing to either text or subtext. Throughout radio and TV messages warn of bubbling North Korean aggression, and it’s not clear until the very end whether this is intended as hints of a threat or mere commentary on the division within the peninsula’s supposedly united Southern half. Exhibiting deft control over a farcical mini-world nested within our actual one, Noh combines this trick and a few others with the tension-filled development of an increasingly narrow setting, enlivening what might otherwise be a rote exercise in genre mashing.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—27.