One Story, Two Cultures: A Cross-Culture Comparison of "Perfect Strangers"

“Perfect Strangers” (2016) directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Genovese gives viewers a seat at the table during a dinner party where participants must take all calls on speakerphone and all texts must be read aloud in an attempt to prove they have nothing to hide. The game gradually sours as secrets are revealed that test the strength of friendships and marriages. The film won “best film” at the 2016 Italian Academy Awards and has been adapted 12 times with 2 more in the making. 

I would have never been aware of “Perfect Strangers” if not for the Korean adaptation “Intimate Strangers” (2018) directed by  Lee-Jay Kyoo which I recently watched on a Delta Airlines in-flight entertainment system. 

Below left: poster for "Perfect Strangers" Italy, 2016  

Below right: poster for "Intimate Strangers" South Korea, 2018

Shortly after discovering the Korean film was a remake I realized how interested I would be in comparing how cultures might tell the story differently. After viewing the Italian version I was initially underwhelmed at the contrast between the films as the Korean version is essentially a shot for shot remake, but as I began to reflect and write I was able to recognize interesting distinctions between the films.

What follows is a general critique of the story shared by the films, followed by a comparison of the cultural adaptations from the original Italian film to the Korean re-make.

General Critique

If you haven’t seen either film I encourage you to watch one of the 12 versions or read the synopsis as from here on out I will be making extensive references to the films’ plot and characters.

Out of the gate, kudos to the writer and director of the original story Paolo Genovese for having the balls and talent to pull off an interesting, sometimes captivating, piece of cinema that is shot almost exclusively in one scene and on one set. 

Both films are mostly void of the devices modern moviegoers are accustomed to making cinema look interesting. Examples of these devices include creative camera work, montage, CGI, unique cuts, et cetera. However, there was one notable exception to this observation that occurs in the final act of both films that I will touch on later. 

Due to the bareness of cinematic adornment, these films leaned heavily on the script, story, and performances to keep audiences engaged. This direction shaped the productions to resemble a theatrical performance as much as modern cinema, which is probably why I didn’t initially enjoy the films as much as I thought I would. 

In addition to the visual resemblance to theater, the story is inspired by the tragicomedy tradition invented by the ancient Greeks and immortalized through the work of Shakespeare.  Genovese makes extensive use of irony in order to flavor his story to resemble this tragic comedy tradition.

A few of my favorite ironic sequences in the film include when the woman who challenged her dinner guests to play the phone game never gets her big secret revealed. This irony is amplified by a foreshadowing conversation between dinner guests about how often times those with secrets go to great lengths to have them discovered. 

Further, the same woman who initiated the game is a psychologist, yet she is plagued by anxiety for her daughter’s future as she leaves for the night with a boy and her dissatisfaction with her appearance as she desires breast augmentation. Her anxiety is especially pronounced in comparison to her zen-minded husband who rarely exhibits anxiety and is himself a plastic surgeon. 

The most impactful use of irony was when the man who insisted on switching phones for fear of being caught receiving extramarital erotic pictures from a woman then receives romantic messages from a man through the switched phone. His wife gets sick with disgust and anger and exclaims it would be reasonable to expect him to seek pleasure from a woman, she feels especially betrayed that he is seeking pleasure with a man - “A person often meets their destiny on the road he took to avoid it” -Jean de la Fountain.

The thespian presentation of the film paired with the story’s heavy borrowing from tragicomedy designate the films to be more than a nod to the classic Greek dramas, but instead a full-fledged member of the genre.

Per my earlier promise I am going to touch on the bit of cinema magic that happens in the final act; the spinning wedding ring. The spinning ring was used as a device to break the reality that existed where the dinner party played the phone game from a reality where they did not. This was an obvious, yet clever homage to the spinning top in “Inception” that was used as a symbol of the veil between “reality” and the “dream world”. Unfortunately, unlike the totem on which the homage is based, the spinning ring left me with minimal suspense and I can’t imagine it spurred much post-watch chatter. This is because the stakes in “Perfect Strangers” are not as great compared to “Inception” due to A, how closely the parallel universe in “Perfect Strangers” is to “reality” (leading viewers to hang-on less to the fantasization of the alternate reality being “real”). And B, the tragicomedy plot forfeits some of the narrative’s weight due to its extensive melodrama and irony.

Cultural Comparison

The most humorous discrepancy between the two films is the kink of the woman who was sending pictures to another man. In the Italian film, the woman’s kink was to not wear panties, in the Korean film the kink was wearing colorful panties. My only guess as to why this change may have come about was to protect Korean audiences from vulgarity? I found this “kink” laughable. Perhaps Korean audiences require a lighter touch and would find a pantyless Korean woman so fantastically improbable that it would shatter through their collective suspension of disbelief. 

Another plot distinction between the films was the Korean version’s added emphasis on wealth and status as a subject of drama. When Ye-Jin welcomes her guests she is happy to show off her opulent new home, her guests admire the abode and express their respect as if the home’s traits are an extension of Ye-Jin. Further, when Chae-Young presents Ye-Jin with a housewarming gift she inspects it for quality, finding “Made in China” stamped on the bottom which cheapens her appreciation for the gift and respect for Chae-Young as she goes on to gossip about the gift’s quality with Soo-Hyun. Later, it is revealed that Ye-Jin’s husband Seok-Ho made some bad financial investments and lost a large sum of money to which the guests react with shock and empathy for the family’s loss of wealth, remarks are made about how Ye-Jin’s father will judge Seok-Hu for his handling of finances. 

None of the financially driven dramas are present in the Italian version. The inclusion of these dramas was meant to add more tension, and it worked brilliantly in the Korean context. The choice to use and the impact of financially driven tension on the film’s characters reveals Korean culture’s, and more broadly Confucianism’s, reverence to wealth as social status and an extension of the self and family. Of course, this is present in the West, but within the framework of the collectivist Korean culture it is amplified. 

The inclusion of financial drama would likely be less impactful in the Italian version as Italian society has lower power distance than Korea, meaning wealth and status is seen as having a lesser role in relationships and interpersonal communication when contrasted to a high power distance culture such as South Korea’s.

As I alluded to earlier, I was initially underwhelmed by the cultural differences between the two films. I actually was almost finished with this piece and had to rip through most of my writing after I realized I forgot about the very last scene in the Korean film. This extra scene is not present in the Italian version and it differentiates the major rhetorical argument made by the films. 

The final scene in the Koren film argues that the universe/reality where the party does not play the phone game is preferred, whereas the Italian film leaves this decision to the audience. 

Both films show a split reality where the party never plays the game and continues on deceiving each other. As the camera pulls away from Young-Bae doing jumping jacks in the street, just as the Italian film’s version of his character does, audiences might expect the film to conclude. However, the Korean film continues as we jump to Tae-Soo’s house where he is laying in his bed and his wife enters his room and asks to sleep with him (they have separate bedrooms). At first Tae-Soo feigns sickness and makes excuses as to why his wife should go away, but eventually, he lets her in. This is the first instance in the film where Tae-Soo shows kindness to his wife, let alone affection. 

The Korean filmmakers seem to argue that a universe where secrets are kept is preferred to the chaos of a universe where our private lives become public. 

To be sure, both films invite plenty of conversation and offer diverse arguments as to which universe/reality is preferable, but the Korean ending reflects the Confucian ethic of family fidelity. 

With regard to the overall entertainment value, the Korean version wins out. “Intimate Strangers” holds more dramatic weight due to the recognition and breaking of Confucian societal norms, such as the pressure to maintain group harmony and preserve honor for oneself and family by the revelation of secrets. 

In addition to a more potent dramatic experience, the Korean film features stronger acting performances. This was headlined by Yu Hae-jin’s performance as Tae-Soo (the guy who is accused of being gay after switching phones with his friend). Yu Hae-Jin’s performance is simply more intense compared to his Italian counterpart Valerio Mastandrea. This is accomplished through his tenacious portrayal of anxiety and desperation that walks on the right side of the line between exaggeration and ferociousness. 

The Italian version seems a bit less intense, and admittedly this could be due to the fact that I knew what I was getting into seeing the Italian version second. On the other hand, the whole “what if this actually happened” ending fell softly as most Italian dinner parties are usually a few glasses of wine away from spousal shouting matches anyways.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, I likely won’t have the opportunity to update this piece with a review of the American adaptation of the story anytime soon as the rights to the film are tied up in the bankruptcy of The Weinstein Company (yup that one).

The reports of Weinstein’s alleged misconduct came to surface months after his company acquired the rights to make an American version of “Perfect Strangers”. 

Life imitates art.

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