TIFF 2021 Interview: Albert Shin on a Place to Be Less Alone in “Together”

There are no names, or at least real ones, for the guests at the beach motel in “Together” where a man introducing himself as Rabbit Doll X (Jae-rok Kim) comes to meet a woman who goes by Happy Virus (So-yo Ahn). They only know slightly more about each other than you do when invited into their room, which they promptly seal off from the rest of the world with duct tape. An offer of soju to settle the nerves helps slightly, but it ends in the two talking about how hungry they are and in Albert Shin’s bewitching short, it’s that insatiable feeling that you start to see has come to dominate them that takes hold as they are plotting to take their own lives.

Shin, who last debuted the evocative feature-length murder mystery “The Disappearance at Clifton Hill” in his hometown of Toronto, returns to the city’s film fest with a tale from South Korea about a pair that wants to spend their final hours in the company of someone else when their reasons for ending things early most likely have to do with feeling they’re utterly alone. The writer/director doesn’t give much away in regards to backstory, but as the two awkwardly attempt to make such a precarious moment more comfortable for another – even without the gravity of the situation at hand, relating to a stranger can’t be easy – the opportunities to see beyond their own troubles start providing relief from the burden that they’ve felt has been placed squarely on their shoulders.

Life-affirming without ever coming off as treacly or pandering, the film emerges as a gem of a drama, one that it turns out its director has been polishing for the better part of the last four years, in spite of how timely it feels in its themes of isolation during this ongoing pandemic, and on the eve of its premiere at TIFF, and available virtually throughout Canada this week as part of the Short Cuts: YYZ Edition online, Shin spoke about the deliberate process that got “Together” into shape, reuniting the cast and crew of his feature debut “In Her Place” to take on such a delicate piece and embracing limitations to make the most out of the elements at hand.

How did this come about?

I made a film prior to “Clifton Hill” called “In Her Place,” which was this Korean-language movie. This was 10 years ago, and when I was doing research for that, I learned Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world and a subsection of that problem is that this idea of suicide pacts where people were finding each other on these message boards and decided to commit suicide together and finding a neutral place where they would meet. Sometimes it was four or five people together and it was obviously quite gruesome and sad, so this idea sunk its teeth into me and I just didn’t know what to do with it. Then I started writing this separate script while I was writing “In Her Place” and put that aside when I made “In Her Place” and I thought I’d moved on, but then this idea kept lingering, so I decided I’d reshape it into a short film and it just became a process of addition by subtraction, just really trying to make something with the least amount of elements but how do I extrapolate drama and make something interesting with these kinds of limitations.

One of the side benefits of making this movie was that both these actors appeared in “In Her Place,” and the crew as well, so it was really just an excuse to get the band back together in some ways. I loved working on that movie so much and I made such deep lifelong friends and it was like, how do I get a chance to work with these people again? And it was great I was able to continue our artistic journey together with some of my Korean collaborators.

This certainly resonates now during the pandemic and two people in a single location seems like something makable, but I understand you actually shot this before…

Yeah, this was the furthest thing from a pandemic film actually. I shot this before “Clifton Hill,”almost four years ago and then I jumped into “Clifton Hill,” so I just put it aside and then I was trying to edit it. It was a hard film to wrestle. We had shot a lot more than what ended up in the final movie and shaping it [to figure out] how much was enough, how much was too much and just modulating the whole piece took a little bit of time. I was distracted with some other projects as well, but it took the pandemic for me to really be like, “This is the thing that I want to work on properly during this shutdown period that we had.” So I only finished this a month ago. It’s a short film that had the longest journey of any of my projects that I’ve had thus far.

Was it interesting cutting this together during that time when I’m sure this idea of isolation is on your mind?

Definitely. That was the furthest thing from my mind when I was thinking about making the movie or while I was making the film, but when I was editing, it was interesting how those two things aligned a little bit, even though it’s not explicitly talking about a pandemic and being isolated but obviously there is a feeling of that that permeates the whole piece. While I was locked down, I think there was a little bit of life imitating art in terms of the spirit of the movie and how I was approaching it, all the intangible things that I was doing to wrestle the movie into shape was absolutely informed by the times that we are living in, so it was interesting that a film that was produced and conceived during non-pandemic times evolved during the pandemic.

What was it like finding the right location for this?

The location took almost as long as the editing process of this movie! [laughs] It took a long time. We scoured the country just trying to find the right location and it’s a tiny little movie, so we didn’t have the luxury of building sets or augmenting existing spaces, so it really had to work with what we were trying to do and check off all the boxes — it had to have this location on the exterior, which you don’t see until the very end, but the interior had to work. There was no way for me to cheat these things. So we spent a lot of time visiting a lot of seaside motels, just driving along the coast of Korea, and ultimately we found this location on an island.

There are some great production design details on this that feels like a mix of the familiar and the foreign to the characters. What was it like to set up?

It was fun. I worked with our production designer that did my Korean film as well and yeah, he was like, “I can fill a truck full of stuff…” The actual location didn’t look like that. We brought everything in and we dressed everything a very specific way, just trying to be true to what those places look like but also just add a certain specificity to it and combining the old with the new [since] a lot of the times these places are old spaces that they’ve put like a new flat screen television on top of old wallpaper. It’s that feeling that things just built on top of each other, so we were trying to play with that idea a little bit so it wasn’t distracting, but it was saying something as well.

That was fun to design and a lot of it was taking things away and putting something very specific in a specific place. I gave myself not a lot of elements to work with. We obviously have those burners and the coal briquettes and two actors and in a room and I gave myself a couple of things to work with just to make it a little bit more dynamic like a mirror, but it really was like, how do I cut this thing all the way down to the bone, but still make something effective and is there something to be said about trying to do something effective by not having all the window dressing that a movie a lot of times used to have? The way I moved the camera, I was trying to be as least distracting as possible, just trying to remove myself from the whole thing and not trying to let my presence be known, let these characters discover themselves in this very awkward and sad situation.

When this starts to take on a life of its own in that way, are there any directions they start taking that you can get really excited about that you may not have anticipated?

Yeah, in a lot of ways, it was process-driven in the sense that, we gave ourselves a few days and we had a script and a structure, but I purposely created enough time where we could just go off on these tangents. Some days we spent a whole day just going down rabbit holes that we knew were probably weren’t going to make [their] way into the film, but it just informed how we were discovering who these characters were and how can we communicate things without having saying much. So it was this exercise of discovery where the actors were just playing and knowing we’re in a space where like, yeah, we might do something weird or to something really profound, even if it doesn’t make it onto the screen, we’re just doing it in service of the final idea that we’re trying to communicate. And it really did in a lot of ways.

It’s one of those films where you watch it and it’s about as simple a movie as I can make but it was really complicated to make it. We did all these things in service of the nebulous idea of the idea rather than the binary things like, “We need to move, we’re going to have to do this and the actors are going to have to get from here to here in this interesting way.” Everything was in service of the intangible, the abstract, but [it was asking ourselves] how do we conceptualize that so that it communicates in a way where they’re not talking about it. They’re not exposing their feelings. They’re not doing any of those things, but we can still get a window into them and see hopefully a mirror to ourselves.

There is a great explosion of energy from a scene in which they dance to Shin Joong Hyun’s “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains.” What was it like finding the right song for that pivotal moment?

It’s a beautiful song and it’s interesting because it’s a super famous song in Korea, like hearing a Beatles song that’s hard-coded into English-speaking or Western culture, so it has that feeling for Koreans, but it was written by the godfather of Korean rock. He was so influenced by American music that his music has a weird psychedelic Western feeling to it. I just love his work and he’s also singing about beautiful rivers and mountains, so there’s a dramatic correlation to what’s happening in the film as well, but it was all designed with that song in mind and I’m just glad that we were able to get the song — it took a little bit of time to get the song, but we got it and I’m really happy we got to feature it because it’s one of my favorite songs.

Was it satisfying making something on this scale after being more concerned with features in recent years? I imagine when you don’t have to deliver a film to producers by a certain date, it can be pretty freeing.

It was both freeing but also stifling in the fact that sometimes having deadlines and somebody breathing down your neck, crystallizes things for you and makes you concentrate on it and you know you have a goal to reach. Whereas with this one, it was always in the back of my head, this anchor that was weighing me down because I was like, “I’ve got wrestle this thing. I got to figure out how to do it and find the time to do it.” But at the same time, I used that time even when I wasn’t explicitly working on this project to think about it and I was giving myself enough time to get away from it to come back and see things in a fresh way. It was incredible to be able to do that and I think that time allowed me to make something that was very, very simple, but also very complex.

There were a lot of scenes that didn’t make it into this movie that we shot, and a lot of things that were maybe overly explicit, maybe things that were a little bit too on the nose or maybe a little too contrived and even if they’re great scenes in a vacuum — and [the actors] really bared their souls in a lot of these scenes — the process of elimination was like, “We don’t need this, we don’t need this. We don’t need this,” and that’s not something that just happens overnight. It was an evolution and the fact that there was no looming deadline or I had to deliver by a certain date, it was like a nice tonic to “Clifton Hill,” [which] was freeing and exciting for me too because I like to zig and zag and this was definitely a zig from the zag that was “Clifton Hill.”

“Together” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival in person on September 11th at the Scotiabank Theater at 1 pm as part of the Short Cuts: YYZ Edition program and available to rent online virtually in Canada through the duration of the festival.