To live or to die? To keep or to give away? To fight or give up on what you so wanted to have? “In Her Place” follows the story of a young girl who happens to get pregnant. It seems she does not mind to keep the baby, but her loving mother thinks otherwise. When a wealthy lady comes to their remote village to adopt the yet unborn child, the conflict of interests starts growing until the moment where both sides must make a decision.
What decision would you make if you were In Her Place? Not everyone would wish to have to answer this question. And we don’t have to. Albert Shin, who masterfully wrote and directed this film, kindly agreed to talk with me about what inspired him on making this film, about his actors, experience and most importantly – to share with us the life of an independent film maker.
MMM: How did you manage to write such an insightful compelling story with such details of the entire situation and the feelings that only a woman could understand?
Albert Shin: Well, that’s a question I get asked a lot. Obviously, looking from the outside – it’s a very female driven film, so I guess it seems very strange. The film deals with female-centric issues, such as pregnancy and motherhood – things that maybe a 30-year-old guy from Canada wouldn’t know much about. However, there was something about the characters that really spoke to me. I really wanted to learn more about them. So, at first it started from a research. I wanted to make sure that I was making a film that made sense, which wasn’t a fantasy, wasn’t a complete work of fiction. I don’t have any children, so it was something that I had to study at first – how pregnancy worked biologically, what that meant emotionally. I read a lot of academic stuff – books and so on, but it didn’t get into the core of the emotional aspects. So that was actually, where I had to really to put myself into their shoes and really explore what it was. I tried to look at it from the human perspective – I suppose not trying to look from a man’s or woman’s perspective, because if I did, it was just too daunting. There were a lot of times when I wasn’t sure why I was making this movie, maybe I was not the right person to make it since I had no personal connection with it. This was the first film that I made that wasn’t about being young – in your twenties – something that I knew personally. I tried to see things from the individual characters’ perspectives and take it from there. Also, I had a co-writer, who helped me to bring female perspective. In general, it was a slow process and wasn’t easy – it took three years to write. And during that time I almost exclusively worked on this movie.
When I cast the actors for the role I really wanted to make sure that I found the right actors, who weren’t just going to read off the script pages, who could bring their personal experiences to the role. I started from there and then I really trusted my collaborators and myself that I was on the right track.
MMM: You mentioned studying about pregnancy to see how to describe it, but what about the young girl, who doesn’t know yet how to handle her pregnancy? But we certainly we can see that she doesn’t want to give her baby away. What kind of study or research have you done in order to describe that?
Albert Shin: I tried to see it from a human perspective. Even though I’ve never been pregnant, but I do know what is like to feel suppressed in my voice, be undermined, feel that what I think doesn’t actually matter or I am too young to know what is right or best for me. Also, the characterization and the characters themselves played a big role. A lot of credit has to go to the actress – Ahn Ji-Hye, who was an amazing actress and an amazing person to work with. As you know, the script was written in a way where a lot of ‘heavy lifting’ had to be done by the actor. There was no much dialogue. She didn’t get to express herself through words, so a lot had to come from the acting and the actual personality of the actress. So, the internalizing of this character and her struggle and being able to externalize it through her performance was really amazing and hard to articulate.
MMM: What really inspired you to write this story? I understand that you wanted to come from a human perspective, but I believe there was also the cultural aspect to it.
Albert Shin: Yes, there was. I was dining in a restaurant in Korea, working on a script. I wanted to write in Korean as opposed to a Canadian film, because I never looked into that side of myself. But I didn’t have a story. While eating I could observe a big family gathering. They were having an argument about some person from their family, who was pregnant, but who wasn’t there at there. Half of the people at the table were accusing her saying that she was not actually pregnant and was faking it, while the other half believed that she was pregnant and that it was ridiculous to doubt. They were very loud. It was a very heated exchange. To me it was fascinating. Later, it got me thinking about people in my own family or in the Korean community, who were gossiping or whispering about how someone wasn’t actually the real child of their parents – this kind of stigma on adoption. So, I started doing research on that and I realized – there’s a strong cultural aspect to the Korean society, which is the idea of bloodlines and passing your blood to the next generation as opposed to bringing in a foreign element – somebody that is not from your bloodline. Because of this notion of bloodlines, adoption is really shamed. At the same time the pressure to have children is immense in Korea and if a couple can’t have children, they are seen as being defective. So, the pressure of being obliged to have children makes people, who are not able to have them, to secretly adopt babies and to pass them off as their own. This is still happening in Korea nowadays. Korea today is a very high-tech modern country, but at the same time there exist these old-fashioned things. So I thought that was a very interesting clash and I wanted to explore it. That’s where it came from. Then I came up with the characters and started caring for them and from there it grew like a snow-ball…
MMM: In such films like “In her place” it is difficult to hold information from the viewer and then release it at the specific time. I noticed that in some scenes there is no dialogue, only silence where it must talk for itself.
Albert Shin: Right. The truth is – it was really hard to write the script. I’m not a huge fan of exposition – I don’t like when two people are talking on camera. Then it doesn’t seem that they are actually having conversation between their two characters, but it’s almost like they are having conversation to give information to the audience for the story. So, I wanted to see if there is a different way to give out information and drive the plot. It’s not a very plot-heavy movie, but there are still things that are given away slowly in the film to drive the story forward. So I really wanted to find out if there was a creative way to tell a story without being dialogue-driven, where the audience is being told what they need to know, maybe being shown and told in a more realistic fashion how people will actually be talking to each other.
MMM: You have orchestrated the entire film so well, that I’m sure there will be no one who will be left tearless by the end of the film. What do you think is the viewer’s benefit from your film? What is the lesson they will learn from this film?
Albert Shin: Ideally I was hoping there would be not just one lesson, but many. And different people would take different lessons away from the film. What I really wanted to do – was making a film about real people, where there is no good guys or bad guys, there is no right or wrong – everyone is kind of right and everyone is kind of wrong; and everyone is coming from a place of sincerely, everyone is coming from place of love and compassion. But at the same time there are clashes with other people’s sense of compassion and love. I really wanted to explore this and shine a light on humanity, which is – for the most part most people are good, they are just trying to make a living, they are just trying to be as happy in given circumstances as possible.
There was also a subtle reason for me why I made such a culturally specific film in Korean language, but hopefully could make it work internationally, so that everybody – whether they are Canadian, or French, Vietnamese or Russian – could still relate to what was going on with these characters. Even though the problems dealt in this film are very specific, I hope it is also a universal thing, which can shine a light on humanity and how people need to start seeing each other’s perspective a little bit more. At the same time, knowing how hard it is – there are no easy answers to how people need to live together. I wanted to make a film, where there were no easy answers to let people know that that’s ok, but we need to explore there with each other. I think a good drama does that – it does not try to tell you the answer – because I don’t have the answer, but gets people think, question and explore themselves.
MMM: You haven’t given a name to your characters. I’m sure you’ve been asked about it many times, but what I like is – with that you make the viewer concentrate on the story itself. Can you talk about that?
Albert Shin: You are right – I tried to do anything I could to take barriers away. Not that a name was a barrier to me, but it was in a way a subtle barrier. I didn’t want it to be about some fictional person – let’s say Son-Ju. I didn’t want it to be about Son-Ju, I wanted it to be about anybody and everybody. So as opposed to the viewer going on a journey with this specific character, hopefully get captures inside this world, where they start seeing how strangely they kept relating to this, even though it was a foreign film to many people. So I wanted to make this film called “In Her Place”, which is – all these three women are being marginalized in their own way and all being forced to make choices that they don’t want to make, for the sake of whatever it may be – society pressures or parental pressure. I wanted them to stand for all of that everywhere around the world. So, I thought this idea of removing the names was a subtle way to suggest it without it being gimmicky. I didn’t want to make a film, where it’s made a point that they are nameless. A lot of times people don’t even realize that they are nameless. And we had very generic names in the script; the girl was just Girl, the woman in the city was just Woman and the mother was just Mother, the man that helps out at the farm was just a Farmhand – because to me it wasn’t about the names exactly.
MMM: Can you please speak about independent film making and what an independent film maker must go through in order to bring his film to the wider audience?
Albert Shin: That’s something I know very well, because I’m coming from very independent, very do-it-yourself filmmaking. This is my second feature film. My first feature was made with just three people. The actors – we found on craigslist. For this second film we had a little bit bigger budget, but it was made with the same spirit, which is – we had something to say, we wanted to get it across and then get the audience to watch it. Filmmaking is a very privileged job, in the sense that nobody asks you to do it. People have to find ways to do it if they have something to say and have to find a way to express themselves. They have to put themselves out there to do that and it’s a very hard job. You never know what’s on the other side, you don’t know if people are going to care, if people are going to like it or show it anywhere. It’s a very risky endeavor. Speaking for myself, it was something that I felt I had to do since I was a kid. I always felt that I had to make movie; I had to express myself in this way and that’s why you just keep doing it. My first film wasn’t widely seen; nobody seemed to care about it. Meanwhile, seems that people are really responding to this one. And I know it is possible that nobody will care about my next film again. But it’s not a reason why I do it – it is the feeling of having to express yourself, to keep doing what you like and keep doing it for whatever reason. I feel very fortunate for the fact that people are responding to this movie. I really loved it when I was making it and it took five years to make. I thought that if I could make it the way I felt – other people would respond. So, it’s gratifying that people have been responding to it the way they have.