SesayArts in Conversation with Filmmaker Alice Shin

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Alice Il Shin

Alice Shin’s first Canadian short film, the award-winning Haru’s New Year (2018) is the story of Haru, who arrives in Canada from Japan and must figure out how to fit in, make new friends and adjust to a new life – all while missing the ones she left behind. With its universal themes of isolation, solitude and hope, the film has struck a strong chord with audiences. In her artist’s statement, Shin admits that the film mirrors her own experiences:  while she filmed the story of Haru’s acclimatization, Shin herself was adjusting to life in Ontario as a newly landed immigrant. 

This was not the first time Shin had left her home in Korea. She moved to Japan as a teenager, and recalls months of adjusting to this new place and language that were “lonely, depressing, and, most of all, discouraging.” She went on to pursue formal film training at Japan’s Nihon University, and since graduating, has worked steadily in Japan, Korea, the U.S., and Canada as a director, producer, and editor. Shin’s independent work has screened worldwide. Currently, Shin makes independent films in Toronto. 

She has said that Haru’s New Year is a product of her immigrant experiences, drawn from her past as a young woman in Japan and translating it into her present as an immigrant to Canada. Her goal is to continue developing as a director of fiction and non-fiction films, and to provide opportunities for other visible minority voices to be heard through her work. 

In 2019, she was one of 20 recipients of the RBC Arts Access Award and RBC Space Award, which aim to boost the careers of newcomer artists across Toronto. The awards have been administered by Toronto Arts Foundation’s Neighbourhood Arts Network for the past 5 years. Each recipient is given up to $1500 to support the creation of new work, and/or to be used for shared studio or exhibition space. Toronto Arts Foundation’s Neighbourhood Arts Network is celebrating the artists at the Newcomer Spotlight Celebration on February 11 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Ahead of the celebration, Shin spoke with us about living and working in Toronto, the impact of the RBC Arts Access Award on her 2019 film Signal Fire, and her current projects and career aspirations.

SesayArts: What sparked your interest in filmmaking? 

AS: Before filmmaking, my earlier passion was music, especially playing the piano. When the time came to make career decisions in high school, I realized the physical limitations of my short fingers to be a professional pianist. I thought deeply about what most interested me, and I realized that I love not just music, but also literature and painting. 

I have loved to watch films since I was a child, so I thought I can do things I like through filmmaking, as the film has all of the art elements which I liked. I still love filmmaking, especially the moment in which every element (acting, camera walk, light, etc) was perfect, so I think my decision at that time was right. 

SesayArts: You have lived and worked in many countries. How has living in Toronto affected your creativity and career?

AS: I have lived in small cities like Jeonju, my hometown in South Korea, capital cities like Seoul and Tokyo, and cultural cities like Los Angeles. With my work experience in each of the cities, I came to Toronto, and I was very surprised at its diverse work circumstances. When I made my first Canadian debut film Haru’s New Year, which follows Japanese immigrant girl, I was working with staff who have various cultural backgrounds – Swedish, French, Chinese-Canadian, Japanese-Canadian, and of course, Canadian! I have learned how to make a balance with these diverse people for making films, even if it was a challenge at first! 

Working in Toronto has made me expand my creative interests, leading me to explore different East-Asian cultures through my work: my second Canadian film, Signal Fire, examines Chinese-Canadian funerary rites, while my upcoming documentary, Home and Native Land(s) (working title), is about Japanese-Canadian internment.

Still from Haru’s New Year by Alice Shin

SesayArts: Can you speak to the impact of the Neighbourhood Arts Network’s RBC Arts Access Fund on your art?

AS: RBC Arts Access Fund encourages me to make independent films that have a limited budget. In 2019, I was in post-production for my second Canadian film Signal Fire, and the existing budget was already spent. It was such a great moment when I received the RBC Arts Access Fund at that time, and super lucky too! Because of this timely receiving, I was able to finish my post-production with a better circumstance of colour correction. Without funds like this, it would be exceedingly difficult for independent filmmakers to continue their work in Toronto.

SesayArts: How can local audiences see your film Haru’s New Year?

AS: Haru’s New Year has already made a broad festival circuit, playing here in Canada and places all around the world, from South Korea to Russia to Vietnam. It has also been screened as part of Toronto Reel Asian International’s Asian Heritage School Tour last year, touring three schools and engaging with over 150 students. We plan to continue our screening tour program this year, so when dates/venues are confirmed, I will post them on my website and SNS: FB & Instagram @aliceshinproductions

SesayArts: Eventually, where do you hope to see your career go? What goal or dream do you have for yourself as a filmmaker?

AS: My short-term goal is breaking out of the shell of “Korean newcomer artist” and realistically changing my identity to “Canadian artist” through the next several projects. In the long term, my artistic goals are to continue developing as a director of both fictional and non-fictional films, providing opportunities for visual minorities’ voices to be heard through my work.

SesayArts: What advice do you have for young people aspiring to become filmmakers?

AS: Filmmaking is very hard work physically and mentally since this work is creating something physical from your invisible idea. If you can enjoy being challenged (see response below!), then you can become a great filmmaker! Even if the original ideas come from you, filmmaking is a team project. Find a creative person who works well with you, and make sure you foster that relationship. If they are a true friend, they will tell you honestly when your ideas are good and when they are embarrassing. Filmmakers cannot go alone!

Poster for Haru’s New Year

SesayArts: What are the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of being a filmmaker? 

AS: The most challenging aspect of filmmaking is when the unexpected happens even when you have seemingly perfect plans. The weather suddenly changes, the permit office worker suddenly will not approve your shooting, an actor/crew gets sicks, equipment gets broken, the list goes on and on! Facing those challenges, we can only follow Gandalf’s advice from “Lord of the Rings”: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” 

Even in the depths of a catastrophe, you can sometimes find creative solutions that end up better than the original idea. I think the most rewarding part of filmmaking is when you overcome these moments (though I certainly don’t seek them out!). Finding those precious moments when the actors’ performances are emotional, the lighting is perfect, and the camera technique is fluid gives me true joy that cannot be replicated outside of production. These tiny, shining moments are what make me continue my art.

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020

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