Albert Shin’s film, In Her Place premiered to wide acclaim at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It has also won several awards, including the Child Protection Award for Best Film at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema. An up-and-coming filmmaker based out of Toronto, Shin made his directorial debut in 2006 with Pin Doctor, a 15-minute documentary about acupuncture told from the perspective of a senior practitioner, which premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Later, a narrative short that Shin directed, Kai’s Place, which revolved around “a young Westerner teaching English in Korea finds himself feeling lost and isolated in his surroundings,” premiered at LA Shorts Fest, described as “one of the most prestigious and largest international short film festivals in the world.” In 2009, Shin directed his first feature film, Point Traverse.
Shin recently sat down with The Origami’s MEI LING CHEN to discuss his film and his process as a filmmaker.
Q: I read somewhere that In Her Place was based on a conversation at a restaurant about a possible pregnancy. Can you expand on that?
A: The more complete answer to that is I wanted to make a film in Korea. That was the baseline. But I’m second-generation Korean [Canadian]. I was born here. I was raised here. And my Korean is o.k. but not perfect. I had a lot of reservations, but at the same time, those kinds of challenges are attractive to me. I grew up in a very Korean home and I didn’t want to reject that side either, so I thought, “why not try to explore that?” So that’s how it started, but I didn’t have a project. I also had this family farm that belongs to my uncle and I spent a lot of time there in the summers in Korea. I had a lot of fond memories and I thought it was a very evocative location so I thought, “why not set a film here?” It took a long time before I figured out why kind of project I wanted to make. And it was kind of hard to write a film about Korea while sitting at home in Toronto, so I went to Korea. And that’s where I overheard the story. I thought that was interesting and I had this idea of, “What if I bring together three women? And what if they were of different generations? And what if I told the film from three different perspectives?” And, instead of it being vignettes I made it one linear film and switched the point of view, all contained in one space. All of that rose from this core concept of this secret adoption. So from that point on it look another two years to write [it].
Q: How were you able to find your actors?
A: It took a really long time to find the actors. The film industry is a little different in Korea. Here you can hire a casting director but in Korea it’s like its own little community. People cast who they know. It’s not like there are official channels to go through. I didn’t have connections in Korea so I had to start from scratch. It took about seven to eight months [to cast]. For instance, the teenage girl character, casting her was almost impossible. I was trying to go for a naturalistic feel so the characters had to be authentic. A lot of the younger girls that are acting in Korea, they don’t have the right look. I couldn’t have a pop star looking girl playing the role because it wouldn’t have felt right. The character doesn’t say a lot so she had to parse a lot of her emotions just by her being there. And because it was just so hard to cast I almost didn’t make the film. That actress, Ahn Ji Hye, was kind of like a godsend. Some of the other actors were already more established in Korea so they really took a chance on me.
Q: And you found them through other people in the industry?
A: Yea, I had a producer and an assistant director that came on board very early, as soon as I got to Korea. And they were local to Korea. And they kept making phone calls and trying to reach people. I was watching films and trying to get the numbers to their agents. I watched plays and approached actors who I thought might be good for the film.
Q: What were the other challenges of filming in Korea?
A: There’s a cinematographer that I work with here and he was supposed to come to Korea with me, but due to scheduling issues he wasn’t able to make it. And because I didn’t have him I had to start from scratch, so I was building new relationships and interviewing people for these positions and my Korean is not that good.
Q: So how did you find them?
A: Same way we found the actors. I had a few people there that I already knew and we just started asking around and the web of connections started spreading. I was really worried about how I was going to work with the crew but it ended up being one of the most amazing working experiences I’ve ever had making a movie. Even though the film was really dark, it was a very joyous experience.
Q: In terms of language, was it really difficult for you or were you able to overcome that?
A: It was difficult in a self-confidence manner. I was committed to doing it so I had no choice. And I went into it with reckless abandon. I would use gestures, simpler words, or even mime if I had to. I think I also had the right actors and they understood the buried themes and what the film was trying to say.
Q: The film has been making its rounds in the festival circuit. How has it been received in other countries?
A: When we premiered here, I had the hometown edge so I had an amazing premiere here and people were very responsive. I was very pleased because I didn’t know how people were going to act. Even though I made a Korean film I wanted it to be universal. And it seems like people have really taken to it. We had our world premiere at TIFF and we had our international premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain and we had an amazing reception there.
Q: What’s next for the film?
A: We have more film festivals. It played in Sao Paolo, Brazil. I’m going to Windsor to present the film there at their film festival. We got picked up by a Canadian distributor, A71 Entertainment, so it will be distributed theatrically so hopefully more people will be able to watch it.
Q: How did you get started in filmmaking?
A: I was one of those kids that loved movies from early on. My parents were immigrant workers so they worked a lot and I watched a lot of movies to pass the time. And I started to get really into movies. I started with martial arts and then I started getting into different kinds of stuff. I had different phases where I was into different things. The more I got into it, the more I drank it all up. I couldn’t wait to finish school so I can start making movies. So I went to film school and there was really no alternative. I was always going to make movies so I had to make it happen somehow.
Q: And your parents were supportive?
A: Yea, very supportive. It wasn’t like I came to the table at 18 and said, “I want to go to film school.” They saw me at an early age playing with cameras and memorizing directors’ names and what they’ve made. So my parents saw that and knew it was an inevitability.
Q: Are there any challenges of being a filmmaker in Canada?
A: I would say there are a lot of challenges. I feel like it’s not one of those things you do because you want to do it, but because you have to, for whatever reason. There’s no real financial job security. It’s very tough. The way I do it is through Arts Council grants, things like that. I did side jobs that were filmmaking related. I did editing, I shot web commercials. Just anything and everything, whatever I could do. All with the idea that I would make feature movies. It’s very hard, but I think it’d be hard anywhere in the world.
Q: How do you think your identity as a Korean Canadian plays into the films that you make?
A: For whatever reason, that’s never interested me in a filmmaking sense. I’ve never made anything about being a second generation Korean in Canada or about the Asian community in Toronto. Not that I have anything against that, it just never spoke to me. So in terms of my work, I don’t know how it affects [it] other than that it’s a part of me. However I grew up obviously informs what I do. [The] first feature film that I made five or six years ago – nothing about it says it’s made by a Korean Canadian. It’s a very Canadiana film, so people were surprised [that] it was made by a Korean guy. I think I also did that as a way of going against what’s expected of me. Or that’s just what spoke to me at the time. I try not to self-analyze too much.
Q: What types of films are you inspired by or drawn to?
A: If you watch the films I make now, I would say they’re more indie art-house movies – a little bit more austere than like a cops and robbers. Growing up I was a big fan of blockbuster movies, like I really liked [Steven] Spielberg. But at the same time I really like filmmakers who were different. Which goes to show movies don’t have to be designed a certain way. It’s really amazing what you can do with the form of cinema and the stylistic choices you can make. There isn’t a specific person or thing [that inspires me].
Q: Can you talk a bit about your next film?
A: This is a film I’m producing with a director friend of mine. So we’ll switch off and on producing and directing roles. This is his film and it’s called The Waiting Room. It’s being made with Arts Council and Telefilm support. It’ll be the biggest film we’ve ever made. It’s about a refugee [who] lives in Canada [who] came here during the Yugoslavian wars. He used to be a big actor there but since he’s been here he’s been relegated to playing Mobster #3. So he’s thinking back and wants to restart his career, but at the same time, he has a family here now. So it’s a midlife crisis film that happens over the course of a week or two and he has to make some decisions about what he wants to do with his life. I’m excited to start shooting. So hopefully that’ll come out next year.