‘In Between Days’: The limits of a cold cinema
There is a chill that runs through Kim So Yong’s In Between Days, frigid air that occupies the space between characters, between film and viewer. The film takes place in Toronto, although it could be anywhere in this part of the world where winters bring biting wind and teenagers roam aimlessly. Aimie (played by Kim Jiseon) is a high-schooler who immigrated from Korea with her mother. Though the two live together, their relationship is cold; we rarely see the two spend time together, and it seems that neither quite grasps the hurt lodged in the other.
Aimie’s days are instead mostly spent with Tran (played by Taegu Andy Kang), frequenting coffee shops, arcades, and the occasional house party populated by an array of Asian-Canadian cool kids, stoners, and layabouts. The two are emotionally involved in the ambiguous, co-dependent way that teenagers often are, but their relationship never seems to emerge from the no man’s land between friendship, romance, and antagonism.
The film itself is perpetually stuck in those in-betweens–those relationships, cultures, and periods of life that constitute so much of what it means to be a person adrift looking to find their way. Yet, rather than focus on the transitional aspect of these spaces and periods (which conceptually imply a movement to and from), the film is static, saturated with an paralyzing ennui that precludes the possibility of a “to.”
Our characters are fixed in place, mired in viscous melancholy. On the one hand, Aimie is preoccupied with a past that is no longer there, a home that only exists now in imagination (in her case simultaneously an immigrant’s struggle to realize that “home” is neither here nor there, and a daughter’s refusal to acknowledge that her father has abandoned her). Meanwhile, Tran seems so defined by his liminality— as someone on the precipice of adulthood, as a Canadian and a Korean, as a boy kicked out of home with nowhere to go— that it’s hard to imagine what he could look like without it.
These, of course, make for complex characters. Characters dealing with nuanced emotions, real threats, characters bound to grow and change, maybe not today but certainly tomorrow. Yet we are rarely privy to much beyond cold exteriors, and the film maintains a level of distance between us and them at nearly every turn (the notable exceptions are the moments in which we hear the messages Aimie intends for her father in voice over). This distance is replicated not just narratively, but also formally, as the camera itself seems unable to overcome the space in between itself and its subject. Though we often get close views of our character’s faces, distance is always palpable—the camera appears to be zoomed in more often than it is actually physically close to its characters—and the film’s decision to shoot handheld makes it clear that it could move closer, but is choosing not to.
This is a cinema of cold voyeurism, of restraint and repression. In a way, it replicates the alienation these teens must feel from their own inner lives, and in a generic context, it positions itself as a more “realist” entry in a coming-of-age canon that is often steeped in artifice. But I often found the film too detached, too distanced, too unwilling to linger when it should have lingered. It was as if the film, like its characters, was afraid of discovering what lay in the unilluminated corners of their hearts. And while that may have been its intention, I wanted the film to have more courage than its subjects, to go where they were unwilling.
Underneath the ice, one could sense roiling waters. Dark, unknown, and unexplored, it was a world that I can understand these teenagers being unwilling to delve into. What I struggle to understand is why the film chose to stay behind with them, frozen, too afraid perhaps, to stare down at the questions that lay below.
Rating: 3 / 5
In Between Days is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #17 on that list.
Last week, we reviewed Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous.
Due to some scheduling issues, next week will be Michael Kang’s The Motel (2005)–#18 on that list.