TIFF 2021: 'Aloners', 'As In Heaven' | Gong Seung-Yeon, Religious Drama | Capsule Reviews
Finding confined spaces in Korea is Aloners (혼자 사는 사람들 in Korean), a confident first film from director-writer-editor Hong Sung-eun, which just to preface, is perfectly timely but not too much so it couldn't resonate in years to come either. Our main character Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) has a job at a call centre, a strenuous relationship with her father after Jina's mother has passed away and no social life whatsoever. Jina claims at one point to be happy when alone, although showing signs of depression here and there, and losing connection to the world around her. Something happening next door in her neighbour's apartment as well as a new recruit, Soojin (Jung Da-eun) who she is supposed to train, cause Jina to respond to the world and examine her own mental and physical state.
Hong's confidence begins to show right away from the first few scenes of the movie as we set up Jina's seclusion, relationships and locations with ease, which then gets the viewer ready for exploration of the character. Ultimately, there is control immediately to be recognised in Hong's direction, made even more impactful by pitch-perfect editing from her as well; there is no rush but time jumps are wonderfully executed, as are shifts from days to nights. Low-budget indies like these thrive when there is either specificity, intimacy and/or visual flair, Aloners certainly having intimacy and tight filmmaking from costumes to set decoration. Occasionally you'd only wish that Jina herself had more specific aspects to her, which would've made the story have slightly more tension in her crisis.
Those feelings about the character often last just a moment because Gong's performance is so controlled, yet so bursting - especially towards the end. The movie would've been fine just with her in the focus but elevating the material is the chemistry between Gong and Jung. Their characters are opposites but that only becomes impactful if the acting is too, an assignment that both actors clearly understood. Gong's acting also changes as the character changes, which is also shown in filmmaking choices like slowly introducing more movement compared to the stability and restrictions in the beginning, or breaking down the glass/wall in the film's last shot, showing Jina from a new perspective.
Smileys: Directing, editing, Gong Seung-yeon, Jung Da-eun
Frowneys: Minor flaws with story
AS IN HEAVEN
From the pastures of Denmark way back when, comes director-writer Tea Lindeburg's directorial feature debut As In Heaven (Du som er i himlen in Danish) which just as a warning, isn't here necessarily to lift up your spirits. A young woman named Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) is living with her pregnant mother Anna (Ida Cæcilie Rasmussen) and siblings on their farm, the household being rather religious. Lise is getting ready to leave the nest to attend school in a city but that plan is upended by the mother's decreasing health after her pregnancy starts to go wrong. The religious household led by their housekeeper is choosing faith and prayers instead of immediate medical help, leading Lise and her family to navigate the muddy waters of blind ignorance which may cost lives.
It wouldn't be a shock to find out that the first few visuals in the film inspired the rest as they are quite stunning and clearly methodically designed. As In Heaven never really lacks in style anyway since Lindeburg and DoP Marcel Zyskind have tricks up their sleeves, and the movie has some terrific lighting throughout, using practical and natural-looking sources effectively. Much of the mood comes from the sound elements; the low-key score, disturbing sounds of nature and the near-annoying noise of young kids are mixed together in delicate fashion.
Since the movie looks and sounds so good, it's terribly frustrating that as a whole, it's constantly on the verge of breaking out into more than that and never being able to. There is a substantial lack of flow in the story which then turns the structure into clutter, and unfortunately the leading performance isn't good enough to keep it together for the character either. Mainly it looks like it's made by people who went to film school because it feels like filmmaking generalised but there's just something unique or grabbing missing. On a less serious note, I did guess the last shot exactly (specifically the camera movement done there) from the title alone, which perfectly sums up how non-spectacular the ending is - too bad because its themes were crying out for a real gut punch which never came.
Smileys: Lighting, sound mixing
Frowneys: Structure, story, ending