TIFF ’21: Writer-Director Albert Shin Presents An Overlooked South Korean Narrative In ‘Together’

By: Amanda Guarragi

Korean-Canadian Albert Shin’s Together presents a narrative that has been overlooked for some time. The stigma surrounding mental health needs to come to an end, so we, as a society, can help one another. When working on In Her Place, Shin learned about the seriousness of Korea’s suicide rate. South Korea consistently has had the highest suicide rate of any developed country in the world. As he went deeper in his research, he came across ‘Internet suicide pacts’, which is a serious, and peculiar issue in Korea’s suicide problem.

“It was interesting. There was something about it that was sad, but also weirdly life affirming. That even as people are wanting to leave this planet, they are still looking to find connection with other people to actually go through with it in solidarity.”

– Albert Shin, Writer-Director of ‘Together’

Internet suicide pacts are when strangers meet on the Internet and make a pact to rendezvous somewhere to commit suicide together. If this is the first time you’re hearing about this, then Albert Shin did his job as a filmmaker. Shin wanted to raise awareness for the climbing suicide rate. Together is a short film that shows the entire spectrum of human emotion and connectivity in a short period of time. All Shin needed was a couple of moments between Ahn So Yo and Kim Jae-Rok to show their loneliness and bleak outlook.

What was most impressive about Shin’s direction, was his ability to use the emptiness of the apartment to mirror those feelings with his characters,

“We were able to explore different places. We allowed ourselves a space and some time to explore different avenues. We tried things and went to darker places. They really opened themselves up and kind of bared themselves in different ways. It was hard to watch and it was hard to direct. It was hard to find a space where they could feel comfortable going into those places.”

– Albert Shin, Writer-Director of ‘Together’

The preparation they had to do for their one last night on this Earth was difficult to watch. They were going through the motions without even questioning it. The set up with the gas, and the tape on the door creases, will hit you emotionally. But once these two characters talk to each other, on their last night together and enjoy each other’s company, the night unfolds differently.

TIFF 2021: Together Review - That Shelf

Even though the subject matter is a bit heavy, Shin explores human connectivity through a certain level of darkness. They go through this one night together, changing their perception about the act that they contractually made. They question life and death, even when just glancing at each other. The cinematography from Moon Myoung Hwan and the score by Leland Whitty elevated each scene, as the mental state of the characters poured out into the apartment. In the end, connecting with someone else, during a very dark moment, can change the course of your life.

TIFF ’21: ‘You Are Not My Mother’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Kate Dolan’s feature debut You Are Not My Mother is an eerie Irish folk horror that will keep you at the edge of your seat. Dolan sets the tone for this film at the very beginning with some supernatural elements that eventually tie into the relationship between mother and daughter. A young teenager named Char (Hazel Doupe) knows something strange happened to her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken). She can’t quite put her finger on it, but when she returns home, after being missing for a couple of days, she isn’t quite the same. Dolan brought the suspense, the graphic imagery, and addressed mental health in a different way.

Dolan creates a very creepy atmosphere within the confines of Char’s home. Yes, the house is filled with her uncle and grandmother, but it still feels empty. Even without her mother Angela in the home, Char has nightmares of what her mother could have gotten herself into. The dream sequences are terrifying, when combined with the rough cuts, haunting score, and the graphic images. We do see some normalcy from Angela, only for it to escalate within seconds, causing Char to be scarred by the drastic change.

What starts out as a daughter caring for her mentally ill mother eventually spirals out of control. It’s incredibly difficult to tend to someone who can constantly change their attitude or even their persona. That’s where Dolan works the anxious horror scenarios into the film. Anything can change in an instant, so the experimental vivid imagery that plays in Char’s mind blends with reality in different ways. Watching your mother do questionable things, while trying to help her through her breakdown is very challenging to watch from a teenagers perspective. Where they are old enough to understand what is happening but still do not know how to approach the situation.

You Are Not My Mother is anxiety-inducing and scary in all the right places. The framing of certain scenes, combined with the eerie score and vivid images, make for an entertaining midnight watch. Dolan’s feature debut is impressive and will make you want to see more from her in the future. She has a way of getting under your skin with her visual storytelling and the jump scares worked in different ways. It’s always fun to experience new filmmakers and their ability to surprise their audience with a different perspective.

TIFF ’21: ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Mélanie Laurent’s The Mad Women’s Ball is a harrowing tale of institutional abuse and misogyny in 19th-century France. Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge) is a young woman with a free spirit, an independent mind, and a quick tongue — qualities her father will not tolerate. Eugénie also has spectral encounters that leave her staring into space and gasping for breath. She is visited by the spirits of the dead. Alarmed by her visions, Eugénie’s family admits her to a neurological clinic in Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière overseen by Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet). Watching Eugénie lose her voice and her freedom by the hands of men who simply didn’t understand her was frustrating to sit through.

In this particular case, women who are seen as outcasts, do not get the love and care they deserve. Instead of understanding women and their trauma, or their personal struggles, they are automatically cast to the side as if they are broken. What Laurent taps into in this film is the ability to understand women and how various forms of trauma, or conforming to societal norms, can affect them mentally. Laurent takes the audience on a brutal journey through the institutional abuse of women when they need help the most. Even though it takes place in the 19th century, those themes are prevalent today.

What these women endure physically parallels the mental struggle of dealing with abandonment, physical trauma and emotional abuse. There are different characters in this film that show the paths women must choose and the repercussions of their choices. Eugénie is very outspoken and therefore, she is isolated, silenced, and terrorized mentally. Whereas other characters are probed and observed by men in the institution. Eventually turning their mental trauma into physical ailments. Women are placed under a microscope in this film and its unsettling to watch at times but really necessary to understand the complexities of trauma.

The Mad Women’s Ball is bold in its visual storytelling, as it casts these women as medical subjects rather than patients needing assistance. It is heartbreaking to watch these women suffer through their own trauma, as men observe them. There is this hatred that boils under the surface and it is finally released at the end of this film. Laurent made this for women everywhere who have felt insignificant because of condescending men who have affected them in any way. It’s a powerful feat that will resonate with audiences who have experienced any form of pain at the hands of internalized misogyny, institutional abuse, and men in general.

TIFF ’21: ‘Spencer’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is a slice of the Princess of Wales that we have never seen before. As the film begins, Larraín labels it a fable of a tragedy. We have seen many projects where they depict the Royal family in a certain way but we have never gotten a character study on one in particular. It isn’t necessarily slandering the family but it highlights the mental state of Princess Diana in a three-day span over Christmas. Diana reached a point where she needed some sort of normalcy, she had played the persona for too long, and now the cracks within her marriage began to show.

Larraín kept the central focus on Diana and Kristen Stewart gave an incredible performance. The intimate camerawork framed her in ways that made her look like Diana from afar. The haunting score by Jonny Greenwood accompanied her descent into realizing that she was stuck. The screenplay was also well-written by Steven Knight, as it kept circling back to the notion that she wanted to go home, back to being a ‘Spencer’, equating that to the freedom of her childhood. In a way, it does act as a ghost story, seeing that she was fighting with the shell of who she became and the girl she once was.

The cinematography by Claire Mathon worked with Diana’s mind. In certain scenes it almost felt like a dreamlike sequence, like Diana was in a daze. The broken pieces of her mind were projected into the frame through every single aspect. It is heartbreaking to watch a woman who is so loving and wants to give her children the same life she had, not be able to live the way she wants. The important takeaway from Spencer is that there were very emotional, playful, and sweet moments between Diana, William and Harry. Larraín wanted to show her as a woman first, a mother second, a wife third, and a member of the Royal family last.

Larraín’s work in Spencer presents a woman who is trapped in her own body, living someone else’s life. Her freedom is defying the guidelines put in place and reverting back to her childhood self. He also visually experimented a bit more in this film and it worked well because he showed many possible outcomes when attempting to take her own life without making it too graphic. Stewart and Larraín truly felt like a match made in heaven. She was in full control of Diana’s persona and the internal struggle she needed to present.

TIFF ’21: ‘Benediction’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Terence Davies Benediction is portrait of 20th-century English poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), and the first time the Davies has ever portrayed love and desire between men. Sassoon went through the war period with a pen and paper in his hand. Exploring the emotions from soldiers and the PTSD they face. The poems from Sassoon are visually executed in a beautiful way thanks to Davies and cinematographer Nicola Daley. It felt like Davies was drawing upon Sassoon’s memories throughout the film and he would use the poems to frame each section of his life. It’s an intimate and somber display of Sassoon’s life and you are transported to that period with him.

Sassoon’s attempt at conscientious objection to the war leads to his being committed to a Scottish hospital, where he meets and mentors fellow poet and soldier Wilfred Owen. Here he expresses his true feelings, as he finds comfort with Owen. They find consolation in each other in regards to their sexual identity and societal norms that have affected their growth as individuals. Davies shows Sassoon exploring different forms of love with different men. We see his relationships and the way he is treated the older he gets. There is Sassoon’s first experience with a man and it is full of love and genuine respect. Then because Sassoon feels he will never love again, the relationships he falls into after are more centred on infatuation and convenience.

Davies uses the poems to create flashbacks for Sassoon. Daley’s cinematography is set as an observational frame peeping into the life of Sassoon at first, but once we get to emotional moments, she paints an intimate, emotional portrait of scorned man trying to find some light in his life. The third act runs a bit long because of Sassoon’s relationship with his son. Or else the film is an interesting feat for Davies in honouring the life of Sassoon. Jack Lowden gives a very powerful performance and the final frame of Benediction is one that will stay with you long after it’s finished.

Benediction is a beautiful, intimate story of love and self-discovery. Davies explores Sassoon’s identity through different relationships, while adding the pressure of societal norms. There is such careful direction from Davies for Lowden’s emotional portrayal of Sasson to resonate with audiences. Period pieces manage to explore the desires and forbidden love between people. Almost everyone can resonate with these stories as these emotions are universal felt no matter the time period. Davies allows his audience to feel whatever Sassoon is feeling through the imagery and poetic dialogue throughout the film.