'In Her Place': San Sebastian Review

Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
Gnomic pregnancy saga takes its time coming to term

Yoon Da-Kyung and Ahn Ji-Hye star in Canadian director Albert Shin's Korea-set drama about the "secret" adoption of a baby

Enigmatic ambiguity and deliberate restraint define Albert Shin's well-meaning but still-born sophomore feature In Her Place, a Canadian production shot and set on a remote South Korean farm. A tale of shameful teen pregnancy and unofficial adoption that feels more like a slowed-down episode of some small-screen rural soap than a fully-fledged work of cinema, the picture nevertheless reaped enough positive responses at Toronto and San Sebastian to portend further festival bookings. Shin and co-writer Pearl Ball-Harding at least deserve credit for dealing so squarely and intimately with the needs, emotions and physical lives of its female characters, but box-office prospects in Canada and Korea look shakily dependent on word-of-mouth and critical support.

In Her Place has already made more of an impact than Shin's little-seen 2009 debut Point Traverse, in which two drifter pals learned the pitfalls of footloose independence. Shin's screenplay once again carefully avoids anything that might be taken for exposition in terms of dialogue, and considerable time elapses before we work out why a well-off woman in her late 30s (Yoon Da-Kyung) has traveled from her home in the U.S. to stay with a middle-aged farmer (Kil Hae-Yeon) and pregnant daughter (Ahn Ji-Hye). When the woman's husband (Kim Kyung-Ik) heads back to the nearest big city after dropping her off, the only man around is a genial factotum (Kim Seung-Cheol).

As the three women adjust to the new domestic set-up, it (very) gradually emerges that the woman from the U.S. has come to an arrangement with the pregnant girl's mother, whereby she'll take the newborn back with her to the States. The woman — the screenplay performs contortions to avoid mentioning any names — already has one child back home, and the question of why she's gone to such time-consuming, convoluted lengths to procure a second is just one detail about which Shin and Ball-Harding are coyly elusive. They presumably discussed why their protagonist eschews more traditional channels of adoption back home for this method (not to be confused with surrogacy), but in the finished product the audience is left guessing.

Some will appreciate the latitude afforded by this approach, but more will surely become impatient and frustrated by the picture's eggshell-treading reticence. Just a little context about the practice of "secret adoptions" (which "used to be very common in Korea" and are "still happening today," according to Shin) would, for example, have proved very useful for audiences unfamiliar with the nation's social minutiae. As it is, we're given plenty of time to ponder issues of psychology and motivation, given the longueurs of a ruminative film that too often veers toward the drab.

The most effective aspect is the illicit-romance subplot between the girl and the father of her child — identified in the credits simply as "boy" (Kim Chang-Hwan) — whom her mother blames for her offspring's plight. Prevented from seeing her immature, live-wire beau, the meek girl acts out in a low-key but destructive way. As she quietly nibbles on splinters of wood, scrapings of plaster and even food from the family dog's bowl, her unorthodox diet puts her fetus at obvious risk. Such self-destructive behavior takes a drastic turn in the third act, when In Her Place changes gear for a histrionic, even melodramatic finale.

Ill-advisedly serving as his own editor, Shin proves unable to realize the material's considerable potential — there's a long, pointless dream sequence which is an obvious candidate for the cutting-room floor. Moon Myoung-Hwan's and Kim Hee-Tae's visuals never threaten to transcend or embellish the fundamental monotony of the interior and exterior spaces within which the narrative torpidly unfolds; and composer Alexander Klinke, rather like the pregnant girl's scandal-phobic mother, proves a prisoner of convention.

Production companies: TimeLapse Pictures
Cast: Yoon Da-Kyung, Ahn Ji-Hye, Kil Hae-Yeon, Kim Seung-Cheol, Kim Kyung-Ik, Kim Chang-Hwan 

Director/editor: Albert Shin
Screenwriters: Albert Shin, Pearl Ball-Harding
Producers: Yoon Hyun-Chun, Albert Shin, Igor Drljaca
Director of photography: Moon Myoung-Hwan ('Director of lighting': Kim Hee-Tae)
Production designers: Her Seo-Hyung Her, Choi Young-Mi
Costume designers: Kim Hyun-Jong, In Ji-Ae
Composer: Alexander Klinke
Sales: Elle Driver, Paris

No Rating, 115 minutes