Unusual circumstances bring three women together in this unsettling character piece.
In Her Place
Oh, awkward living situations. For the nameless woman in Canadian director Albert Shin’s sophomore release, In Her Place, that sense of not quite feeling comfortable in a new place takes on a life of its own. The woman (Yoon Da Kyung) travels from her busy city life in Seoul to the countryside of South Korea to spend half a year with a struggling farmer (Kil Hae Yeon) and her meek teenage daughter (Ahn Ji Hye). Not only is the arrangement uncomfortable but it’s a bit taboo: in a culture that values both morals and blood lines, these women hope to arrange a secret adoption that, if successful, won’t spoil either woman’s reputation. This adds a whirlwind of complex emotions: knowing something so intimate about someone else, being mutually complicit in a societal faux pas, and yet still feeling compelled by those same societal standards to act like everything is perfectly normal. Putting up a front is taxing, and the gnawing fatigue felt by each character is palpable through a series of quiet but effective performances.
The beautiful countryside lends itself well to a film that purposefully seeks to take its time. The pacing, both in revealing the reason for the visit and the way the main characters seem to meander through their days, gives a sense of discovery. Everything feels slightly off and not quite comfortable, as being transplanted into a world that’s not one’s own tends to do. The anxiety permeates—Yeon, as the mother, does a lovely job exhibiting a sense of desperation through her modest number of lines (largely she repeats the refrain “Make yourself at home” with a sense of panic that seems to implicitly say “Please don’t leave”). Her nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Canadian Screen Awards is well deserved.
But the real crux of the film’s dramatic tension lies in the pregnant daughter who clearly is hiding more than just one secret. While the script takes care not to reveal why the woman is there right away—adding a certain intensity to the film’s slow pacing and pale scenery—the momentum all but dies once the girl’s growing belly is revealed. The pacing at that point slows down even further. Minor details—like a five-minute scene of the woman going on a jog—begin to seem like irrelevant tangents after the beautiful slow-burning anxiety of the film’s earlier scenes. Later revelations don’t have the same impact, and perhaps it’s because useful screen time is allotted to scenes with no other point than tone, when the tone has long before been set and what we crave now is a look inside these characters.
Actually, director Albert Shin said in an interview that he set out to create a character film, which is frustrating in that after the film’s first 30 minutes, we aren’t given much more insight into the characters. We don’t ever learn any more about the mother or her motivations—about why, when others would give up on a troubled child, she persists without complaint. When the woman from Seoul discovers the daughter has an unusual disorder, she never seems to evolve past her initial understanding of the girl. Certainly, a character film should have a character arc? Eventually we get glimpses of the daughter’s isolation and sadness through a couple of dream sequences (which add some much needed action to the film’s second half), but we’re never able to resolve just how in control of her actions she really is. Clearly she’s lonely (especially when her sole lifeline to the outside world, a cell phone, is taken from her), but it’s hard to tell if her destructive behavior is a byproduct of choice or mental illness. And considering how underrepresented this girl’s affliction is in the mainstream, it seems a bit irresponsible to even leave room for the audience to interpret the more melodramatic scenes as an overly-simplistic “Well, she was sad.” Surely, letting us understand her motivations a bit more could have only strengthened the film’s quest to make us ache alongside these characters.
Still, these problems seem easily ascribed to the script and not the players, because pacing and narrative holes aside, there’s a quiet intensity to all three actresses. Hye, seen here in her first cinematic role, is tall and quite pretty, but her onscreen character seems to shrink in on herself, in that way unconfident, shy young girls are sometimes prone to do. But she appropriately comes to life in the dream sequences, including one with an ex-boyfriend that quickly shifts a two-hour film of walking and reading into something a little more graphic. She’s believable as a trapped girl who can’t quite exert herself, the type who bows her head as company at the dinner table talk about her, not to her.
But ultimately the film just doesn’t come through on many of its promises, and those it does aren’t satisfying. The daughter’s reservation and secrecy beg for slow gasps of revelation, but of the conclusions drawn on who these people are, none are terribly specific. And that’s a shame because these three actresses gave life to their characters, they just needed a script that had something to say.