Sunday, September 07, 2014

TIFF ’14: In Her Place

It is one of the few relationships Hallmark has yet to crack. It is hard to define just what this moody teen represents to her well-heeled visitor, aside from being the mother of her future baby. The two women will share intimate moments, but there will always be a wall dividing them in Korean-Canadian filmmaker Albert Shin’s In Her Place (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

It is safe to say the Girl is troubled. Frankly, her swelling stomach is only one of her problems, but it is the most conspicuous one. For her Mother, the Woman from Seoul is a Godsend. She will help out during the final months of pregnancy, footing all the bills and providing enough additional money for the Mother to get the run down farm back on its feet again. In exchange, she will leave with the baby, claiming it as her own. This being Korea, social conventions demand they keep everything hush-hush. However, the Girl is the wild card in their best laid plans.

Not surprisingly, boys are a point of contention with her, but she has even deeper issues regarding self-esteem and abandonment. The Woman from Seoul partly understands this, but not fully so. She will take the time to get to know the Girl (as well as the kind of-sort of boyfriend who is quite surprised to learn of her condition), but the management-labor dynamic is hard to shake.

A vibe of foreboding hangs over IHP right from the start and the third act is a bit protracted, yet the film’s ultimate tragedy still hits viewers with the force of a locomotive traveling at full steam. Credit goes to the three principle women, who are each truly devastating, but in a very different ways. Ahn Ji-hye is clearly a young breakout star of the future, who maintains viewer sympathy and credibility despite all her painfully self-destructive acting out. She could easily be the next Kim Go-eun (sort of the reigning Jennifer Lawrence of Korean Cinema).

While many American indie filmmakers would be tempted to portray the Woman from Seoul as a one-percent exploiter, Shin and co-writer Pearl Ball-Harding take great effort to humanize and explain her. She is a complicated character, whose past pain and disappointments are subtly but powerfully conveyed by Yoon Da-kyung. Yet, it is Kil Hae-yeon’s Mother who really sneaks up on the audience and rips everyone’s guts out. In all fairness, it should also be noted two of the guys (Kim Chang-hwan as the clueless Boy and Kim Seung-cheol as the Mother’s farmhand-crony) are also very good, but they are doomed to be overshadowed by the women.

After watching IHP you need a couple days to make peace with it, but in all honesty, it is rare to find films that get under the skin in such a fashion. It is also an usually quiet film that adeptly captures the stark silence and loneliness of its rural setting. Cinematographer Moon Myoung Hwan truly transports us to that hardscrabble locale. It is a demanding film, but it constitutes impressive work all the way around. Recommended for discerning audiences, In Her Place screens again this Tuesday (9/9) as part of this year’s TIFF.