The nominees in the film categories at this year's Canadian Screen Awards may bring to mind the old saying about rounding up the usual suspects: There are nods for works by David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Xavier Dolan.
But there is a newcomer in their midst, one whose film is a thoroughbred as dark horses go. That'd be Albert Shin, a York University graduate whose independently produced second feature, In Her Place, has racked up admiring reviews and influential awards (including the Toronto Film Critics Association's Scotiabank Jay Scott Prize for an "emerging filmmaker") en route to a surprising seven CSA nominations – including for best film and best director.
That's a lot of hardware potential for a movie that was made with modest intentions. In an interview before the film's premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, Shin said his plan was to create a movie that would sneak up on its audience. But while In Her Place is indeed crafty, wrong-footing the viewer right from a mysterious opening scene in which a married couple arrive at a farm in the South Korean countryside, it's also emotionally direct in a way that's anything but sneaky. Its story of two families uneasily joined together by a pregnancy that's being kept under wraps builds into the stuff of wrenching drama.
"I wanted to pull people in slowly and surely," says Shin, who was born in Ottawa but travelled to his family's native South Korea to make the movie. (His 2009 debut film, Point Traverse, was shot in Southern Ontario.)
"I had been getting into Korean cinema as it was growing more popular in North America, with all of these auteurs who were being embraced, like Park Chan-Wook or Bong Joon-ho," he says. "But I didn't connect with the independent movies being made there, and I thought that if I went to Korea and tried to make one, it would be something different, even if it was by accident."
Shin says he knew exactly where he wanted to shoot his new production: on his aunt's and uncle's farm, which was no longer operational but very much available. "It was a very evocative location, plus I could get it for free," he says.
What he didn't have was a story, and he struggled for a couple of years to generate one, until he overheard a family having a nasty argument in a restaurant. They were yelling about someone in the family who wasn't present. "Half the people were attacking her, and half of the people were defending her," he says. "I thought it was really messed up."
To reveal how this situation connects to the storyline of In Her Place would be a spoiler of sorts. Suffice it to say that the film pivots on a revelation about parental identity the director believes is rooted in South Korean culture. "There is a lot of emphasis placed on bloodline, and if you can't bear children, you're seen as being defective," he says. "It's a dark theme, but I wanted to address it in a humanistic way. That's the sort of thing that I'm drawn to."
With its all-Korean cast and subtitled dialogue, In Her Place surely stands out from the rest of the Canadian Screen Award nominees, but Shin believes that it could be a bellwether for some of the homegrown cinema that's still yet to come. "Koreans haven't been in Canada for that long," he says. "Right now, we're in the second generation, and we're entering a third. There are going to be more voices out there as our generation comes of age and begins to tell their stories. And I think that there's something very Canadian about that."
The Canadian Screen Awards Gala airs March 1 starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBC.