The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more informations on lineup and screenings, click here

Look, ladies and gentlemen… I’m not going to stand here and lie directly to your face by telling you that I didn’t go into Intimate Stranger hoping for some good, old fashioned erotic thriller hi-jinks. A title like that indicates either a trashy erotic thriller, or a trashy Lifetime movie, and I had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be the latter.

But good gracious, is Intimate Stranger not a trashy erotic thriller.

I went in hoping for sexy fun, and what I got instead was a bracingly unerotic psychosexual thriller that gets real Freudian real quick.

And though they don’t manage to stick the landing, credit where credit is due: there are very few movies I’ve seen that constantly had me nervously wondering where they were going with this scene by scene, only to consistently swerve to a place more unexpected and disturbing that whatever I might have been imagining.

The story in itself is simple: Ms. Ishikawa (Asuka Kurosawa), a middle aged woman with a job at a baby clothes boutique, is desperately seeking closure on her son Shinpei (Uermura Yuu), who has been missing for a full year. Yuji (Kamio Fuju), a boyish transient whose entire being just radiates miscreant, makes his approach claiming to have hung out with Shinpei a few months back. He’s clearly stringing her along for the sake of some easy money, but Ishikawa is just desperate enough to let herself be led. But from the very opening image, the fact that Ishikawa might just be a little off is made perfectly clear. And so the film is a slow descent into the abyss as we wait to see just how off ‘off’ will get.

And let’s talk about that first image, shall we…?

Miss Ishikawa in a tub, slowly and sensually caressing, in this exact order:

1. Her Son

2. A strait razor

Which is just the opening salvo in director Mayu Nakamora’s valiant effort to create a sense of disorientation and loneliness, an aim aided in no small part by the heavy presence COVID casts over the proceedings.

For a movie that has nothing to do with the pandemic plotwise, the film presents one of the most effective examples of dealing with our new reality in cinematic turns, just in the matter-of-fact nature of it all; people wear masks without comment or acknowledgment, a character casually has their temperature checked as they enter a building; it’s simply a fact of life, and one that only serves to make the metaphorical sense of isolation an almost tactile element of the story.

Ishikawa seems like she’d be isolating regardless of circumstances; hers is a deeply inward, deeply recessive existence, the deep despair and agony only bubbling to the surface in moments of uncomfortably sexualized reverie; a tactile, trancelike state she enters when he thinks she’s alone; even though, in the closest thing the movie has to a running gag, she almost never is. Though her co-workers try to invite her out, it feels like they inwardly breathe a sigh of relief every time she turns them down. They dismiss her as a little odd, because that’s as far as they’re comfortable looking: her troubled nature would be fairly transparent, if only anyone were willing to actually see her.

It would all be funny if it weren’t so sad and disquieting. But then, that’s the movie all over: not even a trace a humor, really, except of maybe the darkest imaginable. Or maybe the scene where Ishikawa is describing how the pressure builds up inside her sometimes, a monologue that ends just as her tea kettle reaches a boil and starts whistling counts as winking self-parody.

But I doubt it.

At any rate, the entrance of Yuji into her life seems to give her something like hope, even though it’s patently a false one. And Yuji, who exists in a liminal state between a wholly untrustworthy scam artist and an overgrown child who is in over his head, either isn’t savvy enough to understand the situation or understands it perfectly well, but can’t quite bring himself to pull away from this clearly damaged woman.

Because, inevitably, Yuji has issues of his own to work out and together, he and Ishikawa create a feedback loop of quiet desperation that could end in any number of ways, none of them good.

The movie spends a lot of time in that bizarre, uncomfrotable space, where their dynamic shifts in perverse and unpredictable ways, and part of me thinks it would have been interesting if the film never actually showed its cards, if they left us in that ambiguous, undefined space. But the truth will out, and, while it’s not entirely unpredictable, it at least follows through on its own deranged logic. And indeed, leads to a moment that would have made for a pitch perfect ending to the whole sick, twisted affair.

Unfortunately…. the movie keeps going.

If the ending is the conceit as they say, in the end Intimate Strangers errs on the side of overegging the pudding. They find the absolutely perfect elliptical and strangely cathartic note to have gone out on; blow past that to a less effective moment that would have made for an excellent cut to black; and then move past that to an ending that feels circular in the most trite and hacky manner possible, like a particularly lousy Twilight Zone episode.

So the landing is ultimately, not stuck. But up until the last five or so minutes, it’s an effectively warped little family melodrama

And if you do get turned on watching it… please, for the good of society… keep that shit to yourself.

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