Horror comes in many forms. Some just want to scare you with frightening imagery and sounds. Some want to shock you by inflicting all kinds of trauma on the characters. Some want to keep you up at night and even during daytime by drawing parallels with real-life atrocities. But when you have watched all of them repeatedly since you are such an avid fan of the genre, there comes a time when you aren’t really shaken by any of it. You do appreciate it. However, disturbed? No. With all that said, Nakamura Mayu’s Intimate Stranger (2021) is that rare example as it dares to get weird with the complexity of its subject matter, then reach into your mind and mess up your feelings.
Directed by Mayu Nakamura, Intimate Stranger takes place in post-COVID Tokyo where Yuji (Fûju Kamio), along with a gang leader of sorts, is seen scamming an elderly lady by pretending to be her son’s friend who is there to get some money for her hospitalized son. The narrative then shifts to Ms. Ishikawa (Asuka Kurosawa), who works at a clothing line for babies and whose son, Shinpei (Yû Uemura) has been missing since 2019.
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Yuji and Ishikawa’s paths collide when Yuji leaves a comment on Ishikawa’s missing person advert, claiming that he knows about Shinpei’s whereabouts. They meet up and, weirdly enough, Yuji begins to act very arrogantly while giving the information on Shinpei. And as soon as Yuji understands that he can use this opportunity to earn money which Ishikawa is willing to pay to know more about Shinpei, he milks the hell out of it. But things take a wild turn when Ishikawa invites Yuji to her home and Yuji learns that maybe he’s not the one leading on Ishikawa. In fact, it’s the other way around.
On a technical level, Intimate Stranger looks, sounds, and moves pretty simply. The first act has some external shots. But as soon as the second act kicks in, Nakamura restricts the movie to Ishikawa’s flat, rarely moving out to give the characters or the audience some air. The overall production design is hauntingly vapid in order to hint at or quite literally reflect Ishikawa’s internal struggle. And it seems particularly scary due to cinematographer Tomohiko Tsuji’s camera movement and colour palette, which is reminiscent of the aesthetic of Japanese horror movies from the late 90s and early 2000s such as Ringu (1998) and Ju-on (2002).
It seems very purposeful so that the viewer (who has hopefully watched the aforementioned classics) makes that connection, revives the nightmares from that viewing experience, and gets scared preemptively. Or it’s just Nakamura’s way of saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned back the clock to the late 90s, not just in terms of the socio-economic issues but how that impacts the way people perceive the world.
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So, yes, COVID-19 plays a very important part in Intimate Stranger. When shoots restarted after the pandemic forced filmmaking industries to shut down, there was some skepticism that this crisis would merely be used as a gimmick. Zombie Reddy (2021) is probably the biggest example of that. But Nakamura has tackled its horrors from the other end of the spectrum i.e. by looking at its psychological and financial impact.
Yuji’s entire arc is about the harm the pandemic has done and is still doing to the financial stability of every country, thereby hurting its ability to employ the young. As someone who’s not from the country on display in the movie, it’s difficult to say if Japan is as unstable as let’s say India is post the pandemic. However, through Nakamura’s lens, it is. And the honesty, morbidity, and bleakness with which he has portrayed it speaks to the fear bubbling inside all of us regarding the uncertain times that lie ahead of us and whether it’ll be sustainable enough for the young. In doing so, he crafts an intangible beast looming over society that’s more dangerous than a cursed ghoul.
In addition to that, Intimate Stranger dives headfirst into how this pandemic has aggravated, for the lack of a better term, the mommy issues that apparently plague Japan. There’s a biting line uttered by Ishikawa where she says that men in Japan (and to be honest, in general) are way too pampered by women. But Ishikawa’s actions show that the internalised patriarchy she carries within her forces to pamper a man, which in this case is Yuji.
Now, since the movie is essentially a cautionary tale about the harmful results of the pandemic, Nakamura goes a step further by turning Ishikawa’s motherly feelings into something that’s borderline (or maybe explicitly) predatory. Is it morally correct? Well, it depends on your perspective. Sexism and gender roles were warped during pre-pandemic times and they’ve been warped to a greater extent after the pandemic. So, if you feel what Ishikawa does in this fictional story is justice, then it’s morally correct. If you don’t, then it’s not. And just when you begin to realise how far you’ve gone into the rabbit hole to tackle that dilemma, a new kind of fear will set in. The fear that pre-established definitions of humanity have probably been eroded.
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There is a fair chance that audiences will shy away from wrestling with the uncomfortable and spine-chilling questions that Intimate Stranger puts on the table. Because at the end of the day, everyone wants to have a good time at the cinema. But if they manage to push through that initial phase of awkwardness, they’ll be able to engage with this brooding piece of work by Mayu Nakamura. It’s certainly a little lacking in terms of creative flourishes. That’s not accidental though.
The plain approach is very purposeful because Nakamura knows these are uncharted territories for the uninitiated. There’s one uncut, gut-wrenching piece of performance though, involving Kurosawa and Kamio, during the film’s climactic moments and it’s jaw-dropping. Apart from that, yes, it’s quite a simple movie that runs at a healthy pace straight into your brain, where it’ll continue to rattle until you find the strength to exorcise it.