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: ‘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.

TIFF ’21: ‘Memoria’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Apichatpong Weerasethakul Memoria is beautifully striking in its landscapes, as he delivers a character-driven story, about human connectivity through archaeological study. How truly connected are we to this world? How many generations have passed through us. From stories that are passed down through generations, or studying the actual land ancestors walked on, the human connection runs deep. Memoria centres on Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish orchid farmer visiting her sister in Bogotá. One morning, Jessica is torn from sleep by a loud bang resembling the rumbling sound of a large stone ball falling on metal.

Weerasethakul takes his audience on a journey through sound. The most important aspect of this film is the way the sound design impacts Jessica. Not only does Weerasethakul expertly balance the sound throughout, he lets the frame fill with silence, before awakening the senses. It is very slow, poignant, and will have audiences questioning the meaning of this film. It is left up to interpretation but the subtle hints to the extraterrestrials, to science, to human evolution, and to death, are all intertwined to show human connection.

The sound that Jessica hears is linked to her studies. As the film goes on, that connection becomes clearer. There are key points throughout the film where this sound is louder and direct. We hear the difference in Jessica’s hearing, which interested me the most. The sound frequency varied, depending on the situation or the conversation. We could hear the voices on screen slowly fade, into a faint whisper, or grow louder as Jessica became more disoriented. The third act proves that sound design is an important aspect when making a film. The choice to have the memories of Hernan (Elkin Díaz) echo through the room, while he laid his hand on Jessica was powerful.

Memoria may be a bit slow, but the stunning images that Weerasethakul creates is more than enough to suck you into this world. It slowly unravels into a beautiful story for Jessica, as she has lost her love for her study. She has lost the connectivity to the world she once firmly lived in, filled with love and respect for generations past. The empathy shown towards others and their stories is truly felt in the third act of this film and will resonate with audiences. Weerasethakul is emotional and thoughtful in his storytelling, through his symmetrical landscapes, precise camerawork, and careful direction.

TIFF ’21: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Dear Evan Hansen,

This is a movie musical that should have stayed a stage production. Like many that came before it, Dear Evan Hansen, suffers from the overly long runtime and loses its original message. Some musicals do not fit the screen and that’s okay. I have never watched the Broadway production and I now regret not listening to the original soundtrack beforehand. Apart from the fact that Ben Platt does not look like a teenager, the other actors were miscast. Our dear Amy Adams gave a performance that just did not work for some reason. I couldn’t help but sit there and say, “Oh, Amy. Where did this come from?”

First and foremost, I did not know how dark this story was. I decided to go in blind and boy, was I sent for a loop. I almost got whiplash over the amount of dark turns Evan took with zero consequences. The whole musical is a fabricated lie with a meaningful, heartfelt story about serious mental health issues. This is a serious topic that gets stuck in this tornado of over-singing and melodramatic moments that do not work for the screen. It is beyond frustrating to watch a movie and actually get secondhand embarrassment from the lead character. Not because of his social anxiety but because of the poor decisions he made.

Again, the songs are so well-written. Amandla Stenberg made me weep with ‘Anonymous Ones’ and that’s about it. The issue with this film, and quite frankly, the musical itself, is that the subject matter is too serious to actually create this mess of a story on top of it. This may sound like I hate it, but that’s a strong word. There were some moving moments, and every time I would get into the story, a poor choice was made. It really is a rollercoaster of emotions that I don’t think the general audience is ready for.

Dear Evan Hansen has emotional songs, a very strong performance from Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever, but sadly the script was lacking. There is something so simple about a stage production that can get lost when translating to the grand scale of cinema. There were editing choices that didn’t work and camerawork that really ruined some strong, emotional moments. If the musical is dear to your heart, you may appreciate it, but for someone who went in blind, this wasn’t made to work on screen with this subject matter.

TIFF ’21: ‘Petite Maman’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

From French auteur Celine Sciamma, comes a beautiful intergenerational story about grief, love, and the journey of life. After her grandmother dies, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is taken to her mother’s childhood home. While her parents go about cleaning out the house, Nelly explores the surrounding woods. She encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl exactly Nelly’s age and to whom she bears a striking resemblance. Sciamma’s direction and storytelling is layered through Nelly’s grief, and her loss of innocence, through the false perception enforced by her parents. When a child loses someone dear to them, at such a young age, it can affect them differently. Sciamma structures a narrative that is so effortlessly heartwarming and will resonate with everyone.

The script is straightforward and Sciamma uses a simplistic approach when structuring this story. You become connected to little Nelly, as she is the central focus of this film. The performance from Sanz is absolute perfection and she carries the film on her shoulders. In the first five minutes, Nelly’s perception of life and death, is shattered. Even saying goodbye has been tainted for her. The death of her grandmother has a lasting affect, right from the beginning of the film because of how Sciamma set-up the goodbye. When is the last time you will say goodbye to a loved one? Was the goodbye, good enough? We will never know, and that conversation she has with her mother, was the breaking point.

There are subtle pieces of dialogue that will help the viewer make certain connections in the middle of the story. This could very well be one of the most emotional and well-thought out narratives about grief I have seen in a while. What Sciamma does is project Nelly’s grieving process into Marion. She doesn’t quite understand what her mother is going through and is somehow questioning her life. At the ripe age of eight, she is struggling to understand the capacity of her mental state and that of her mother’s. Sciamma dives into the mind of an eight-year-old in a very complex and emotional way.

Petite Maman is a beautiful film that is thought-provoking and heartwarming. The story is well-written and naturally unfolds to reveal how perceptive children can be. They can sense something is wrong without it being said. They question if it’s their fault, even when the anger, or grief, or sadness, has nothing to do with them. It is such an in-depth look into the mind of a child and Sciamma balances comedic moments with emotional ones quite well. Little Nelly will have you wrapped around her finger by the end of this and you will truly leave completely fulfilled.