Interview: Albert Shin

At 30 years old, with two feature films under his belt, Canadian director Albert Shin is now seeing his name listed among Cronenberg, Egoyan, and Dolan’s. That’s because those are the directors he’s nominated alongside at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards (March 1). In fact, Shin’s Korean-language drama In Her Place, was nominated for every CSA it was eligible for: Best Motion Picture, Achievement in Directing (Shin), Editing (Shin), Original Screenplay (Shin and cowriter Pearl Ball-Harding), as well as nominations for all three lead actresses (Ahn Ji-hye, Yoon Da-kyung, and Kil Hae-yeon). Since premiering at TIFF last September, In Her Place has toured the world, playing film festivals in Spain, the U.S., Brazil, United Arab Emirates, Greece and Sweden. We sat down with Shin on the eve of the film’s theatrical run in Toronto.

Dork Shelf: What was the genesis of this project? 

Albert Shin: I was born and raised here, in Canada, I’d made a lot of student films and my first feature here so I was looking to do something different, something fresh to challenge myself and make me step out of myself a little bit. Even though I grew up here, I grew up in a very Korean home, I thought maybe I should try to explore that side of myself. I wanted to make a film in Korea, I’d made up my mind about that but I didn’t really have a story. I was trying different things, I wrote a couple of scripts that were probably too ambitious or just too out there. This idea came about because I was at a restaurant in Korea. There was a big family gathering and there was an argument about whether or not somebody in that family was actually secretly adopting a baby and faking her pregnancy. It was a divided table and I was listening, thinking that’s such a strange argument to be having. Then it got me thinking about how even when I was growing up in the Korean community, or even in my own family, there would be gossip about how so and so wasn’t actually pregnant, they secretly adopted this baby, I thought that was kind of bizarre. People think of Korea for Samsung phones and LG TVs, not old school archaic family lineage and bloodlines and that kind of stuff. I thought that was an interesting arena to set a story. From that I just started writing, then it morphed into this after several years.

DS: How did you raise the funds to make it? 

AS: At the time, we were in the midst of making another film, one that I produced. It was my buddy Igor’s film, who made Krivina, that film was set in Canada but it was all in Bosnian. We were having a hard time getting funding for that film because of the language barrier. Through that experience, I thought maybe I need to find a different route. At first I was looking at more traditional routes, like Telelfilm or the Harold Greenberg fund, but I thought maybe for this particular project I should try a different approach. This was before Kickstarter and Indiegogo, back in 2010 or 2011, before crowdfunding was very prevalent. I created a film that could be intimate and small so I could raise the funds myself. I fundraised, I asked for a little bit of money from a lot of people. I was able to piecemeal the budget together. When I went to Korea I was just couch surfing on my extended family’s couches, eating their food and just making it work that way. Then I shot the film, came back home and didn’t have any money for the post production, by that time our other film had brought a little bit of money into our company, we just poured it all into this movie. We went all in.

DS: So it wasn’t really an international coproduction, like most people assume? 

AS: Canada and South Korea don’t have an international coproduction treaty. It was a coproduction in the sense that I had a producer in Korea who helped me raise some money there, but it wasn’t an official coproduction. That was another barrier. Everything was done on our own as opposed to having a regulated entity that gave us tax credits and all that kind of stuff.

DS: Why did you decide to leave the characters nameless? 

AS: The flippant answer is that I like to write my scripts linearly and I’m very bad with coming up with characters’ names, I’m also one of those people who can’t write the next thing without knowing what comes before it. Page one you have to write down a character’s name, I just didn’t have anything so I just told myself I’d keep them all nameless and that will make it easier on myself. The real answer is that even though it takes place in a very specific place with very specific people in a very specific culture, I wanted to create an element of universalness to it. The names to me seemed like a barrier for some reason, to keep them nameless meant that they were one person but that  they were all people at the same time. It was symmetrical in my mind. In Korean, the way they speak, you don’t have to necessarily say people’s names when you talk, there are all sorts of titles that you can address someone by. I didn’t need names so it just felt natural to forego it altogether.

DS: Does the title’s double meaning translate in Korean? 

AS: It doesn’t translate that well in Korean which is why I don’t have a Korean title. Everything about the film is Korean other than the fact that there’s no Korean title, which is weird. I wanted to play with this idea. Obviously the film looks at three distinct points of view, you’re put in their place, so to speak. I also wanted it to be very individual as well and not call it ‘In Their Place’ or something like that. It’s a very feminine driven film, so being able to put the female connotation it the title as well helped. It was actually the last thing that we came up with. The film was just called ‘Untitled Farm Adoption Film’ for the longest time. We were done editing and we still didn’t have a title, then it finally just came and we rolled with it.

DS: As you’ve toured with this film around the world has it been met with varied responses?  

AS: The most gratifying thing for me, because I’ve been able to go to a lot of these festivals, is that it’s a obviously a very specific film, it’s very particular in terms of the culture it’s about. It’s a very specific language, Korean is really only spoken in Korea, it’s not like Spanish or English. The reactions have been very very similar, people still empathize with the characters and they understand their emotions. That’s what I hoped would happen, to see it actually happen in film festivals is very cool. People in Abu Dhabi are telling me the same things that people in Sweden, where I just showed it a couple weeks ago, are saying. It makes us seem much closer, like we’re not that different.

DS: Did you look to any specific films or filmmakers while planning your approach? 

AS: I’m a huge lover of cinema so I watch a lot of films, but for this film in particular I thought about three films, I don’t think I referenced them but I watched them and thought about them before I went into the nitty gritty of production. The three were Mike Leigh’s Another Year, the Japanese director Koreeda’s Still Walking and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. I’m not sure why, but I knew I wanted to look at these three films to draw inspiration, whether it’s stylistic or just approach. All three are seen as naturalistic where the plot isn’t spoon fed to you, everything slowly reveals itself which is what I tried to do with this film.

DS: What’s on your Dork Shelf? 

AS: It’s at my parent’s house now but I have a huge shelf of VHS tapes and then that graduated to DVDs and blu-rays, so that’s my Dork Shelf. In my life I’ve only wanted to be two things, one was a filmmaker and the other one was a basketball player, so I used to collect Basketball trading cards. I have some really good collectable ones that hopefully one day will be worth something.

In Her Place opens at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto this week, Albert Shin will be attending all opening weekend screenings for Q and A’s following the film.  Read our review here.