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Offbeat suburban indie chiller “Make Yourself at Home” marks the US film debut of popular Korean actress Song Hye Kyo, and sees her tackling a very different role to the kind of romantic comedy princess she played in the likes of television series “Hotelier” and “Full House”. Originally shot back in 2008 and released in Korea in 2010, the film was the first feature outing for director Sohn Soo Pum, who also co-wrote the script with Margaret Monaghan. The film also goes by the alternate title “Fetish”, a somewhat misleading moniker which seems to suggest explicit content, as while it is a fairly perverse affair, the focus is more on cultural differences and psychological tension than anything titillating.
After a strange opening scene involving Korean Shamanism and possession, the film begins with Korean-America lawyer Peter (Rob Yang, recently in Hollywood science fiction thriller “The Adjustment Bureau”) arriving home in suburban New Jersey with his new Korean wife Sookhy (Song Hye Kyo), who he met through a matching agency. Sookhy has trouble settling into her new life, being unable to speak much English and being constantly undermined by Peter’s horribly pushy mother (played by Jane Kyoto Lu, who showed up in a few episodes of “Lost”). After a tragic accident, she finds herself spending more and more time with John (Arno Frisch, who some viewers may remember from Michael Haneke’s controversial 1997 outing “Funny Games”) and Julie (Athena Currey, “Remember Me”) the seemingly happy couple next door, though her relationship with them soon takes a turn for the sinister as her sexuality blooms and dark secrets from her past emerge.
“Make Yourself at Home” is a hard film to categorise, containing elements of horror, psychological thriller, relationship drama and more. This works in its favour, and ultimately it can perhaps be best described as an exploration of cultural clashes and tensions, with Sohn Soo Pum effectively using the premise as a somewhat far out metaphor for fitting in. It works very well in this respect, following Sookhy as she faces a variety of challenges and difficulties, coming up against barriers of language, behaviour, morality and expectations, not only with her Western neighbours, but more interestingly with her Korean-American husband and mother in law. The theme of identity becomes increasingly important, and Sohn successfully gets the point across in inventive fashion, bringing things to a fascinating, if bizarre conclusion.
It’s fair to say that the plot is largely secondary to other concerns, and viewers expecting a more straightforward narrative driven thriller may be a little disappointed. The plot itself is fairly obscure, and quite frequently takes odd leaps forward without too much in the way of explanations. This seems to be entirely on purpose, with ambiguity being the order of the day and with the script being pointedly awkward, featuring oddly stilted dialogue and strange situations. This actually sits well with the themes, leaving the viewer feeling alienated and pressured along with Sookhy, and it gives the film an effectively unsettling feel, with a constant suggestion of something unpleasant lurking behind the suburban façade. In this too Sohn doesn’t lay things on too thick, and though sex and perversion do play a very important role, the film is only explicit in terms of drug use, with no actual nudity or anything graphic.
Song Hye Kyo is undoubtedly the film’s greatest asset, turning in an excellent performance in a difficult role. Carrying the film almost entirely on her shoulders, she is wholly believable throughout, transforming from painfully shy and insecure housewife through to femme fatalle type figure. Although her actions grow increasingly immoral and inexplicable, she manages to remain a sympathetic protagonist, if not always a likeable one. Song effortlessly steals every scene she appears in, with Arno Frisch and Athena Currey being less impressive and at times rather artificial – though again, this may well have been what Sohn was aiming for.
It’s this uncertainty and Sohn’s leftfield sensibilities that really drive “Make Yourself at Home”, and which make it enjoyable and thought-provoking, at least for open minded viewers or those looking for something a little different. Bolstered by a fine, multi-layered performance from the excellent Song Hye Kyo, it’s all the more interesting for its unconventional approach, and what it lacks in narrative, it makes up for in ideas and subtext.
Soopum Sohn (director) / Soopum Sohn, Margaret Monaghan (screenplay)
CAST: Hye-kyo Song … Sookhy
Arno Frisch … John Waits
Athena Currey … Julie Waits
Rob Yang … Peter Kim
June Kyoto Lu … Mrs. Kim
Clarissa Park … Deaconess Lee