|A daughter, whose child can never be hers.|
A mother, whose daughter is everything.
A woman who has come between them.
A baby that binds all three for eternity.
Dir. Albert Shin
Script: Shin & Pearl Ball-Harding
Prods. Igor Drljaca, Yoon Hyun Chan & Shin
Starring: Yoon Da Kyung, Ahn Ji Hye, Kil Hae Yeon, Kim Sung Cheol, Kim Chang Hwan, Kim Kyung Ik
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Now and again, I find myself seeing a movie that feels so perfect, so lacking in anything resembling a single false note and so affecting on every level that I'm compelled to constantly pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. In Her Place, enjoying its World Premiere at the 2014 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is a dream, but most decidedly of the dream-come-true variety. This is exactly the sort of film that restores my faith in the poetic properties of cinema and how the simplest of tales, at their surface, allow its artists to dig deep and yield the treasures inherent in the picture's soul. When a film is imbued with an inner spirit as this one is, you know you're watching something that hasn't been machine-tooled strictly for ephemeral needs. In Her Place is a film about yearning, love and the extraordinary tears and magic that are borne out of the company and shared experience of women. And, it is exquisite.
A childless couple nearing the early stages of middle-age, cut a private deal to adopt outside the purview of an official agency, which, they're convinced, will be the ideal no-muss-no-fuss arrangement. The Wife (Yoon Da-kyung), having been previously afflicted with serious health issues, especially wants the world to think she's the biological birth-mother of the adopted newborn. She and her Husband (Kim Kyung Ik) concoct a cover for friends and family that she's waiting out her pregnancy in America instead of Seoul. In reality, she's not left South Korea at all and is staying on an isolated farm. Her hosts are The Mother (Kil Hae-yeon), widowed and forced to run the sprawling acreage on her own and her daughter, a shy, pregnant teenage Girl (Ahn Ji-hye). For a substantial sum, this financially needy rural family agrees to give up the baby to the well-to-do couple from the big city. The Wife stays in modest digs originally meant for onsite farmhands while her Husband returns to Seoul to work. From here, she can maintain the optics of being away from home during pregnancy but also take an active role in nurturing the young lady carrying "her" child. The arrangement seems too good to be true and sure enough, complications slowly surface and threaten to scuttle an otherwise perfect plan.
In Her Place is director Albert Shin's stunning sophomore feature-length outing. Working with co-writer Pearl Ball-Harding and co-producer Igor Drljaca (director of 2012's dazzling Krivina and Shin's old York University film school pal and partner in their company TimeLapse Pictures), Shin and Drljaca seem to have pulled off another miracle in the relatively short life of their seemingly perfect partnership. Evocatively photographed by Moon Myoung Hwan, wrenchingly and beautifully scored by Alexandre Klinke, featuring a cast as perfect as any director (or audience) would want and edited by Shin himself with the pace and deep sensitivity that's reminiscent of a Robert Bresson film, you'll experience as haunting and touching a film as any of the very best that have been wrought. This is great filmmaking, pure and simple.
What I love about this movie, aside from its emotional content, is just how Shin trusts in the beautiful writing and employs a mise-en-scène that allows his actors to inhabit the frame (always perfectly composed) for the kind of maximum impact that can come from holding steady on narrative action and only cutting when absolutely necessary to spin things forward in subtle ways - parcelling out information so that we are allowed to take in both information and the affecting layers of very palpable impression and subtext.
A perfect example of Shin's assured direction occurs right off the top. The film opens with a fade up from black into a perfectly composed fixed shot of a well-worn gravel road. Flanked by lush, green trees, an unassuming, slightly worn farmhouse sits deep in the centre background, while a car makes its way into the frame and moves with purpose onto the property. All is swathed in a strange grey light from the overcast sky and as the car reaches a halfway point on the road, Shin cuts to place us in a reverse as the vehicle comes even closer to the house. It's as if the point of view was not so much from that of a character, or even from the inanimate house as if it were personified, but rather taking the perspective of an omnipresent observer. This won't be the first time Shin delivers such a POV. From this point and onwards, he allows us, the audience to participate with a kind of fly-on-the-wall scrutiny.
This second shot of the film is masterful on several important fronts.
In both the writing and staging, the camera lets action play out in the time it takes and in so doing, always keeps us guessing (in all the right ways) as to who is in the car, who the people are once we meet them as they exit the vehicle, get an immediate sense of character from how the two people are positioned in the frame and also by their actions and finally, a very subtle dolly back as the two characters move forward and encounter a sweet, friendly, but sad-eyed dog, chained next to an empty food bowl as it observes the visitors.
This image of a chained dog resonates incalculably as the film progresses.
Another important element here is that these two people become identifiable as a married couple because the shot takes its time and is so perfectly blocked. Even more extraordinarily, the shot allows enough time for one of the people to notice something in the distance and move towards it before the next cut.
This entire shot is a brave and bold stroke so early in the proceedings. The shot lasts for two minutes of screen time, setting the mood, tone and pace of how the tale will unfold, but also establishing how we, as viewers, are observers. And we are not passive viewers. It's as if we were actually in the frame, unseen by the characters, but participants in the narrative nevertheless, almost complicit in the actions of the story. Complicity is indeed a key thematic element at play in the film and Shin does not let us off the hook.
Finally, though, the shot also gives us the sense that this will be the story of The Husband. He is, after all, the most active half of the couple. This is essential at this point, especially since we soon find ourselves within an interior shot set back from a table where the Husband, his back to us, continues to be the most active character in terms of his domination of the conversation and by his declarative statements regarding the heat and stuffiness of the interior.
The notion of being able to breathe, to feel the sort of freedom this natural, rural environment should inspire, to not be hemmed in by circumstance, a lack of communication and/or connection to the outside world is also an element that is established and will reverberate throughout the film with great force.
The other vital component here is that the position of the camera allows us to see all three women very clearly. Though their interaction seems tentative compared to that of the husband, the very length of the shot allows Shin to establish trinity between these women and we're soon plunged into their story - which ultimately, the film is. The Husband seems a mere appendage or, if you will, the chauffeur. He gets his wife there, he even gets us there, but when his job is done, he's dispensed with save for a few key moments later on wherein he still, strangely, feels more like an instrument of mere conveyance.
The dynamic between these three women is so powerful, so telling and finally, so devastating, that Shin's subtle control of his film is at once invisible and yet always present because we are where we have to be for every single emotional and narrative beat.
In Her Place so quietly rips our hearts to shreds. We are included in the emotional journeys of a daughter whose child can never be hers, a mother whose daughter is everything to her but comes to this realization when it's too late and a woman who has come between them because her own desire to love and nurture is so strong and true.
Finally, it's all about a baby - a new life that binds all three women for what will be an eternity.
This is a great picture. See it.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
In Her Place enjoys its World Premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. For tickets, dates, venues and showtimes, be sure to visit the TIFF website HERE.