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SFIFF 53 review: Abandonment Cold Turkey– In Ounie Lecomte’s “A Brand New Life,” a Korean girl is dumped at an orphanage when her father starts over

“A Brand New Life” Dir. Ounie Lecomte (South Korea/France, 2009, 92 min)

A scene from Ounie Lecomte's A BRAND NEW LIFE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

Abandonment is hard at any age but it is particularly harsh when a child who has bonded with a single parent is rejected suddenly without explanation. That is exactly the situation in Korean-born Ounie Lecomte’s debut film “A Brand New Life,” a drama set in the 1970’s, in an orphanage near Jeonju, a Korean provincial city.  The film opens with heartwarming scene that is universally familiar—a young Korean girl Jin-hee (Kim Saeron) is smiling ear to ear while riding in the front of a bike that her dad is steering.  As she passes the day with her dad, they shop for new clothes together.  At lunch, she sings tenderly to him but her song is one that eerily foretells their future “You’ll never know…how much I loved you.  You’ll regret it one day when time has passed…”

Later, while on a bus trip in the countryside, her dad lovingly washes mud from her feet and shoes. At a bakery, she is asked to choose a cake but is confused and we soon learn why.  As it turns out, these fatherly acts of kindness are not benign—her dad is intent on presenting Jin-hee spic and span, cake in hand, to a Catholic orphanage, where he is abandoning her.  We later learn it’s because she does not fit into his brand new life with his new wife and infant.  To top it off, it appears all he told her was that she was “going on a trip” and didn’t explain what was going to happen.  And so begins Jin-hee’s brand new life as an orphan.

A rattled young Jin-hee, who presumably has already lost her mother, is now facing the incomprehensible double whammy of loosing of her father—a man who is very much alive and well and in whose love and care so she has felt so secure.  She copes with orphanage life through stoic withdrawal and denial, clinging to the belief that her father is coming back for her.

A scene from Ounie Lecomte's A BRAND NEW LIFE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

Slowly an older girl, Sook-hee (Park Doyeon), earns a place in her heart and the two girls bond as they sneak late night bites of cake, spy on others and attempt to nurse an injured bird to health.  Sook-hee tenderly educates Jin-hee about life and adoption–the ticket out of the orphanage. Sook-hee is 12 or 13 and has started her period but carefully hides this fact from everyone to appear younger to prospective adoptive families seeking pre-teen children.

Kindly Western couples visit the orphanage routinely.  Sook-hee wants a shot at family life offered by foreign adoption and tries hard to impress by touting her ambitions and interests.  Shy and forlorn Jin-hee does all she can to avoid being noticed but is always central. Those girls chosen for adoption appear petrified and leave by automobile for their new lives while those remaining gather round and sing a farewell round of Auld Lang Syne with a beautiful second verse immortalizing the orphanage:

In the flowery hills

With peach and apricot blossoms

Like a palace full of pretty flowers

How I miss playing there

Eventually, adoption touches both Sook-hee and Jin-hee and their lives are forever altered and we hope happy.  The film is tightly focused on their experiences at the orphanage.

“A Brand New Life,” depicts the pain and grief facing a young child in Jin-Hee’s situation but it does so in a rather flat storyline. Well-worn metaphors play out with priests delivering sermons to the girls about Jesus’ suffering and his plea “Father, Father? Why have you forsaken me” and the girls caretake a wounded bird.    

The film stands entirely on the exceptional performances of its child actors. Preteen Kim Saeron as Jin-hee is remarkably believable, delivering a stoic and traumatized child who can also be moody and willful.  Her smile and porcelain skin light up the screen.  Park Doyeon also shines as the brave and centered Sook-hee.

Sadly, there is little grounding information imparted about the situation facing Korean orphans in the 1970’s.  The adoption of orphan children actually started because of the devastating Korean War (1950-1953) and soon became something of an industry, with over 150,000 adoptions processed since the 1950’s.  The topic is explored in riveting detail in Dean Liem Borshay’s documentary In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee which just picked up the best feature documentary award at the 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.  Because the bloodline runs through the father and has been so vitally important in Korea, it was not common for a father to relinquish his child after losing his wife unless the loss was due to infidelity or he was unable to provide for the child.  The circumstances surrounding Jin-hee’s relinquishment are left purposefully vague.  It becomes painfully clear in one of the film’s most compelling scenes that Jin-hee believes that she was sent to the orphanage as a result something she did to her infant step-brother that caused a rift in her family.  Her guilt is astonishing.  

Other cohorts at the orphanage represent a spectrum of relinquishment experiences.  Sook-hee never met her parents and was left with an aunt who subsequently relinquished her.  The orphanage’s oldest ward, Yeshin (Ko A-Sung), a young adult, is crippled and her adoption prospects are so bleak that she believes that she has been taken in by a Korean family solely to cook and clean.

In all, life at this particular Catholic orphanage is good, perhaps exaggerated—food and gifts are plentiful and there is little fighting or rivalry between the girls who call each other “sis” and spend late nights throwing fortune cards.  The staff is approachable and seems genuinely concerned for the girls’ welfare.  For the most part, the discipline seems minimal. In her early days at the orphanage, Jin-hee climbs the fence to the top of a high concrete pillar and teeters in front of all the children, appearing ready to jump. When she won’t come down, a nun opens the orphanage gate and tells her she is free to go.  She and all the children then walk away.  Jun-hee is left alone, with no place to go, but back to the orphanage.  

For Jin-hee, letting go of her family and past is too much to ask.  But until she accepts that there will be no white-knight rescue by her father, she will not embrace the prospects or love awaiting her.  But then, she never asked for a brand new life…everything is out of her control.   A poignant film about loss that falls short of its vast potential.

Screens: 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival—Saturday, April 24 (1:45 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Sunday, May 2 (12:15 PM, Clay Theatre), Tuesday, May 4 (Sundance Kabuki) tickets $12.50, www.sffs.org

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April 28, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to Adoption—in “Wo Ai Ni Mommy,” a Jewish family in Long Island gets a new member from China and everyone has to adapt

8 year old Sui Yong (3rd from left), a Chinese orphan meets with her foster family for the last time before she is adopted by the Sadowsky family of Long Island in Stephanie Wang-Breal's "Wo Ai Ni Mommy." Photo CAAM

How do you adapt to a brand new family member from a different culture?  Director Stephanie Wang-Breal’s first feature film film “Wo Ai Ni Mommy”  (“I Love You Mommy”) breaks important ground as she travels to Guangzhou, China with adoptive mother Donna Sadowsky of Long, Island, New York, to meet her 8 year-old daughter, orphan Sui Yong (“Faith”) for the first time.  

Wang-Breal acts as a fly-on-the wall documentarian, capturing the moment by moment complexities of forging a loving and healthy bond with an older child from another culture.  While over 70,000 children have been adopted from China into the U.S. since 1992 and everyone’s experience is different, this story is unique.  It is told in real time and captures the child’s perspective, often in her own voice.  Most adoption documentaries are told from the perspective of the adult adoptee looking back in time or the adoptive parents’ experience or even the relinquishing birthmother’s point of view.  This one is straight from the psyche of an 8-year-old who was abandoned as a 2-year-old and has been living at the orphanage and in foster care.  She has never seen a Caucasian before but has been told by a kindly Chinese social worker named Leila that she is going to have a good life in a place called America. 

As the film unfolds, nothing is held back.  We first meet the Sadowsky family in Long Island.  Jeff and Donna have two teenage sons and a 3-year-old Chinese daughter, Dara, who was adopted at age 14 months.  The decision to adopt another child was agreed upon by all family members and everyone’s view seems to have been respected.  The action then moves to China with Donna in her hotel room, a few hours before she is going to meet her new daughter, Sui Yong.   Her elderly father has made the journey with her.  Her husband Jeff made the difficult decision to stay at home and care for the rest of their children so that Donna could devote her full attention to Faith.  Donna is anxiously preparing stacks of hundred dollar bills and organizing gifts for the orphanage. Sui Yong’s care for 6 years has been subsidized by the Chinese government and Donna is paying $3,000,  a pittance compared to costs in the US. 

At the Guangzhou Civil Affairs Office, the first meeting between mother and daughter unfolds in the chaos of what appears to be a dozen similar introductions taking place all at once.   The tension is palpable.  A social worker carefully handles the introduction and Sui Yong is asked what she thinks of the name “Faith.”  She is then told that she will now be called Faith and she should call Donna “Mommy.”   She is told many times that Donna loves her and that she will come to love her Mommy too.   As Donna gives her daughter her first hug and pulls her into her arms, Faith is stoic, shell-shocked.  When given the chance to ask Donna questions, she asks only one—does the Sadowsky family eat fish.  To which Donna answers yes, “We like fish.”   A smile emerges.

What follows is a linear narrative—tracking moments of happiness, ambivalence, sheer fright and acting out, an unexpected meeting with Faith’s Chinese foster family, traveling back to Long Island where Faith meets the rest of her new family, and her subsequent struggles to integrate into family life in America.   Language, food, habits—everything Faith has known as young Chinese girl vanish as she struggles to adapt to boisterous Jewish family life.  Donna is a no-nonsense mom and establishes boundaries and expectations right away–Faith must learn English to communicate and she needs to learn to share what’s going on inside so that her family can understand her needs.  Dad Jeff is a very loving father who is keenly aware of the impact of his smallest gestures of affection or discipline and is very careful to treat all his children equally and with sensitivity.  

Over the course of 17 months, we gradually witness Faith’s transformation into a lively, outspoken American child.  Rapid immersion has had a remarkable impact– there is a noticeable set of cultural gains and losses and actual shifts in her personality and identity.  She moves differently, has different expressions and attitudes and now identifies herself as American.  Sadly, she has nearly forgotten her native Cantonese language but wants desperately to communicate by Skype with her beloved foster sister in China.   Of particular interest is the rare footage of adoptive mother Donna meeting Faith’s Chinese foster mother and family in China.  (In China, the law prohibits foster parents from adopting.)  We are poignantly aware throughout the film that this foster family nurtured Faith for several years in China.  This loving bond, her most significant source of attachment and love after her birthmother abandoned her, has been a healing anchor for Faith.  The Sadowskys recognize that and welcome the foster family into their lives as well.

In all, we marvel at the courage of the Sadowsky family to allow a camera to roll uncensored through this intimate and often raw experience.  Some very difficult moments are captured and this is actually what gives this film its real force.  When Faith does not get her way, she pitches a fit and says she wants to leave and return to China.  When she struggles with carrying her books due to her impairment, she doesn’t ask for help and is scolded when they drop to the ground.  At one point she blurts out to Donna “You are a white person and I am Chinese.”  Adoptive mom Donna Sadowsky has a strong parenting style.  She doesn’t always achieve immediate success but she is consistent, respectful and always listens to her children.   We never doubt her love for Faith.  As the film progresses, we witness the entire family trying to strengthen their bond with Faith and to protect her.  In all, what emerges is a very realistic account of the hard work, self awareness and love it takes to pull adoption off on a daily basis.  This is a deeply moving and intelligent film that probes the very heart of what family means while exploring issues of identity, cultural assimilation and bonding.  

 “Wo Ai Ni Mommy” is part of the year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, March 11-21, 2010, sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)San Francisco.  It has also been selected for the prestigious PBS award-winning series Point of View 

Screens— SUN 3.14 (3:30 PM, Kabuki, San Francisco), WED 3.17 (7:00 PM, Kabuki San Francisco).

March 13, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment