In Abroad, a multinational Korean-American collaboration featured at the 2023 Twin Cities Film Festival, the shocks and scares escalate to a feverish pitch before crashing back to earth. Abroad is a collaboration between Italian born co-writer/director Giovanni Fumu, Minnesota-born-and-raised co-writer/producer Maximilian Selim, and Korean producer Kimbo Kim, all of whom met and began collaborating at the Prague Film School more than a decade ago. All three were present at TCFF for the screening of Abroad, which won the Best Minnesota Feature Award there in the fiction category.
The film is a crowd-pleaser, for sure, with plenty of twists and turns. Its plot focuses on a young Korean couple vacationing in northern Minnesota, where they hope to see the Northern Lights. But soon they will encounter far stranger phenomena than those they travelled to see. Taemin (Jang Seong-beom) and Minji (Lim Young-joo) arrive in America following a rough flight, one that reduced Taemin to airsickness. He’s nauseous, grumpy, and fatigued; his sickness prevents them from reaching their rental counter on time. Fortunately, Minji is more resourceful. She finds a rideshare to their Airbnb: while on the way they and their driver nearly crash in a driving rain, but at least the two reach their destination.
There they are, the young couple, left alone in a remote cabin with no transportation and no cell coverage. Taemin is still grumpy and Minji has just about had it with his attitude. To make things worse, nothing about the rental property seems quite right. There are no pillows or towels. A door won’t open from the outside. In the distant woods, a wolf howls. And then, things get even worse: somehow, while in the shower, Minji disappears.
When the local law enforcement appears to investigate, Taemin struggles to communicate. Of the two, his English is far inferior. Even so, his story seems to make little sense, and he becomes the prime suspect, locked up with little hope in a strange land. Like in many a great thriller, he is, as they say, wrongfully accused. That he knows no one, speaks little English, and has no evidence of his innocence (since Minji arranged all the travel details) stacks the deck against him, and Taemin must escape and hope to find Minji on his own.
The setting of the smaller towns around Lake Superior (the film was shot in Grand Marais and Duluth) make for an excellent place to get all Twin Peaks-y. Taemin’s flight is full of thrilling chases and surprise shocks, which director Fumu, with his background in commercial cinematography, handles with aplomb. Even with, or perhaps because of, his character’s limited English proficiency, Seong-beom makes Taemin a wholly sympathetic protagonist, evolving quickly from a put-upon curmudgeon to a resourceful action-hero game to solve an impenetrable mystery.
As Taemin’s quest continues, viewers are going to find themselves increasingly skeptical of what they see onscreen. Why does the small town Sheriff (Chris Carlson from Drop Dead Gorgeous) act so melodramatically evil? Why does his deputy assist Taemin in his escape? How can surveillance footage directly contradict prior events we saw unfold onscreen? Or the MSP airport rental agent be a dead ringer for a local citizen up north? Just when these oddities accumulate to the point of absurdity, Fumu and company offer up a solution, one that neatly obviates what looked like plot holes, but to some will seem a bit like a Bobby-Ewing-takes-a-shower-style sidestep.
Whatever one thinks of the film’s final act, Abroad makes the most of its North-shore small town setting for a culture clash, wrong-man-on-the-run suspense thriller plot. Its leads in particular are charismatic, the kind of people you want to root for, and Fumu’s direction keeps things happening, whether they are sensical or not, at a quick pace with expert timing and stylish cinematography.
For certain, some viewers might grumble and squirm at Abroad’s approach to its own narrative, but others who can suspend disbelief a bit further and longer will find it, like those did at the Twin Cities Film Festival, a crowd-pleaser, and engaging and thrilling 90 minutes that will offer up something to think about even after the closing credits have rolled.