In Her Place (2014)
Editor’s Notes: In Her Place opens in Toronto at Carlton Cinema tomorrow, February 13th.
A dirt road surrounded by trees and bushes; a dilapidated farmstead; cracked and peeling walls; a middle-aged woman jogging in an unfamiliar town; the imaginative flights of a teenage girl; an older woman hunched in a field uprooting vegetables.
Such images constitute the remarkable In Her Place, co-written, produced, edited, and directed by second-generation Korean-Canadian Albert Shin, working for the first time in his parents’ native South Korea. He assuredly elicits tone and mystery from the film’s opening shots, in which a car drives up that dirt road to that desolate farm and a couple (Yoon Da-kyung and Kim Kyung-ik) alights. Obviously out of their element, they knock on a building’s door without answer and briefly engage with a friendly chained-up dog until they spot and approach an older woman (Kil Hae-yeon) smoking in the distance. An abrupt cut shifts the viewer into the comfortably furnished inside of one of those outwardly ruined buildings, introducing yet another character, the woman’s teenage daughter (Ahn Ji-hye), sitting silently while the other three exchange awkward pleasantries, the mother deferential to the couple. Even as the pair brings luggage from the car and starts to settle in a room once reserved for farmhands, the nature of this situation is still obscure. This deliberate narrative ambiguity even extends to the exact identities of the characters, referred to in the end credits only by such universalizing titles as “Girl,” “Mother,” “Woman,” and “Husband.”
Part of the pleasure of Shin’s film is piecing together its gradually-revealed plot strands and the motives of its characters …
Part of the pleasure of Shin’s film is piecing together its gradually-revealed plot strands and the motives of its characters, but the central plot line needs to be spoiled: the couple has arranged to adopt the pregnant teen’s child, and the wife will live at the farm while the husband continues to work until the birth. The couple is claiming to their friends and family that the wife, who had miscarried in the past, is pregnant herself and has traveled to America to have the baby. Such duplicitous “secret adoptions” were common in Korea’s bloodline-obsessed past, according to Shin’s “Director’s Note,” and some still occur today. Desire and deception fuel the three main characters, women unable to see beyond their unique circumstances. While all are prominent throughout the film, Shin slowly drifts from one to another as things progress, privileging an individual viewpoint for a while only to complicate it in light of the other two. In Her Place‘s overall aesthetic of long takes, figures enveloped by natural backdrops, and a quietly unfolding narrative complements each woman’s partial awareness of the big picture, revealed only in the inexorable march of time.
The newly-arrived Woman is the first subject of the film. Her perspective as an interloper within the decaying farmstead becomes the viewer’s (partially obscured, voyeuristic) window into the deeply mysterious spaces dividing the Mother and the Girl. Awkwardly staving off incoming calls from well-wishers and exploring the town outside, she makes her wide-eyed face of wonder a comically common reaction to the events around her. To compensate for her fish-out-of-water status, she shows maternal warmth towards the bearer of her impending child against the more forceful parenting of the teen’s Mother. She subtly flaunts her class advantages, buying a dress for the Girl and jogging while the Mother picks crops during the day. Only when the Girl starts behaving oddly and clandestinely meeting the teenage father (Kim Chang-hwan) does the Woman show flashes of anger, looking less like a possible mother figure for the Girl than a mere business partner for the Mother. The domestic facade of normalcy cracks, and the Woman gravely keeps an eye on her investment.
In Her Place’s overall aesthetic of long takes, figures enveloped by natural backdrops, and a quietly unfolding narrative complements each woman’s partial awareness of the big picture …
Then she drifts to the background to let the Girl come to the fore. Studiously passive and frequently alone, she inwardly resents being the biological center of the unusual bargain between her Mother and the Woman. Ahn impresses with unexpected physicality and constant momentum, defying the conventional constraints of developing pregnancy. The film privileges her dreamily impulsive imagination through extreme close-ups and outdoor scenes, culminating in a playful, sensuous but realistic fantasy in her bedroom. From this point, however, the limits of her agency grow ever clearer. In the real world, the Girl can only be a physical commodity, a means by which the Woman can fulfill her socially-defined role and the Mother can escape the poverty of her failed farm. She exerts her adolescent will in shocking, if overly symbolic, ways, absentmindedly ingesting bits of paint and wood and running without aim from her home like a formerly enclosed animal. Her notions of freedom inevitably run contrary to those of her Mother and the Woman, leading nowhere but further and further into herself until even that becomes untenable.
Emotions churn within the stoic women until a shock forces responses from them all. Before then, in shot after shot, Shin and cinematographer Moon Myoung Hwan surround the three protagonists with extreme negative space, isolating them into their own contemplative worlds. Key bits of dialogue and stray conversation push the sometimes frustratingly elliptical plot ahead, but it’s the hardened masks of the women’s faces that tell the important story. Within its comfortably small scale, the film manages to portray several unique and compelling psychological profiles and familial pathologies, putting it within range of the complex work of such Asian cinematic humanists as Hirokazu Koreeda and Lee Chang-dong. Like some of their best films, In Her Place ends by examining the human response to an overwhelming trauma, anchored by an observational acuity and resigned realism.
The movie’s melancholy coda belongs to the teenager’s Mother, whose forced geniality and maternal temper give way to exhaustion and catatonia. She is the oldest and in some ways most mysterious of the three main characters, having had an urban livelihood before succumbing to an idyllic image of rural existence with her husband. An early dialogue exchange hints at this elaborate previous life, weighting the intertwined fates of all three women with the failures of the past. The Mother returns to her rote life following the climactic trauma, perhaps changed by apprehending the precarious double-edged meaning of the title. She and the Woman were each unable to empathize, to imagine herself as another and face the world “in her place,” in no small part because each woman is kept “in her place,” bound to the codes and rules of the immediate family and of the wider community. They also realize too late that they each want what the other has and takes for granted: economic stability, and a son or daughter to call her own. Envisioning escape from this self-perpetuating cycle of commerce is beyond this beautiful film’s modest scope, but it suggests that just beyond one’s limited horizons are other people, with other stories, worth considering.
In Her Place ends by examining the human response to an overwhelming trauma, anchored by an observational acuity and resigned realism.