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CAAMFest 2017 review: In Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul,” five Korean adult adoptees journey to Seoul to meet their birth families and to explore the intersection of adoption with their identities

Alt rapper and Korean adoptee Dan Mathews (Dan aka Dan) visits Korea with four other Korean adoptees in the summer of 2016 in Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul” (2016), screening twice at CAAMFest 35, March 9-19, 2017. Mathews reconnects with his biological family, including his identical twin brother who remained with his birth family in Korea, while Mathews was relinquished and adopted by an American family. Mathews will be in attendance at both screenings as will Min Matson, of San Francisco, who also appears in the film. Image: courtesy CAAM

Exploration of identity has always been a complex challenge for adoptees and it’s particularly true for those raised in adoptive families of a different race and culture. Jon Maxwell’s new documentary AKA Seoul (70 min, 2016), screening twice at the upcoming CAAMFest, impressively encapsulates a range of experiences shared by five Korean twenty-something adoptees who journey to Korea in the summer of 2016 to find themselves as they connect with their birth families and their native Korea.

The film is a sequel to the documentary series AKA DAN, which chronicled the 2013 journey of alternative rapper and Korean adoptee Dan Matthews as he met his biological Korean family, including an identical twin brother he never knew about. AKA Seoul picks up three years later as Matthews and four other Korean adoptees—Chelsea Katsaros, Siri Szemenkar, Min Matson, and Peter Boskey—get together in Seoul in various restaurants, bars and tattoo parlors to unpack various aspects of their identity as Koreans, as adoptees and as adults.  Since they are all in the immediate throws of searching and reuniting and each experience is unique, what results is a very fluid and candid snapshot of adoption.

Siri Szemenkar, a Korean adoptee raised in Sweden visits Korea, meets her birthmother, and reflects on experiencing Korean culture for the first time in Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul” (2016), screening twice at CAAMFest 35, March 9-19, 2017. Image: courtesy CAAM

  • Dan Mathews introduces his adoptive mom, Lynn Mathews, from Camarillo CA, to his Korean birthmother while continuing to process that he has an identical twin brother who remained in Korea with his birth family while he was adopted out.  His brother is learning English to strengthen their bond and to facilitate communication for the entire birth family while Mathews is trying to figure out how much interaction he actually wants.
  • Siri Szemenkar, who was raised in Sweden with virtually no contact with Asians, meets with adoption agency officials in Seoul to get information about her birthmother.  After being stonewalled, she is told that her birthmother wants to meet her. Her hopes are dashed when the birthmother cancels and then elevated when she changes her mind.
  • Min Matson shares his story as a transgender Korean adoptee and what it’s like to experience Seoul and Korean LGBT culture for the first time as a male. Min’s adoptive mother was Dutch and his adoptive dad was Norwegian and, while he felt really loved by his parents, he had strong feelings that he was boy in a girl’s body even before he started elementary school. He shares his isolation and his adoptive family’s struggle with his search to find his identity, which included a suicide attempt. When he first went to Korean as a masculine looking woman, it was hard for him to fit in with Korean women and to identify with the culture. When he returns, on this trip, to embrace Seoul as a Korean male, with a sense of body security, he feels different, as if he really fits in.
  • Chelsea Katsaros, a 28 year old genetics student at University of Minnesota, was raised by adoptive parents of Norwegian and Greek ancestry in Minnesota and grew up around surrounded by people who didn’t look like her. She admits that pressure of being Asian in a white family and culture, was stressful. When she realized as a teenager that she was gay, and came out at age 19, she felt even more pressure because her adoptive family was deeply religious and would not accept her, ultimately leading her to sever communication with them altogether.  Holding an orphan in her arms on a visit to Seoul’s Eastern Social Welfare Society, she laments that she will never be able to adopt a Korean baby herself because she is gay and Korean policy only allows for heterosexual adoptions.
  • As free-spirited poet and textile artist, Peter Boskey, meanders through the back alleys and shops of Seoul collecting fabric and mementos for his art, he discusses his creative life and the influence of adoption on his artwork. Not only is his artwork a deep expression of who he is, it has been profoundly healing.

What makes AKA Seoul so relevant is the lens feels very fresh.  The five adoptees, aside from being very creatively inclined, represent a broad spectrum in terms of their life interests, sexual orientation (two are gay, one is transsexual), and levels of self-awareness.  The common thread is that many of them were raised by white adoptive parents and grew up in communities where they had little contact with other Asians, much less Koreans.  As a result, they often ended up feeling isolated within their families and communities, despite feeling that they very loved. The mere sensation of seeing people who look like them and feeling a kind of completeness within themselves is one of their most special take-aways from Korea.

Peter Boskey is a textile artist and poet who was raised in the suburbs of Boston with two adopted siblings. He first visited Seoul in 2009. On this 2016 visit, he mines the vibrant shops and stalls of Korea, the country of his birth, for artifacts that he can incorporate into his artworks that will express aspects of his experience as a Korean American adoptee. Image: courtesy CAAM

Another is the natural comradery, empathy, and bonding that develops between the five as they eat and drink together, get special tattoos, and unpack their adoptee experiences.  They form a pack and we sense that they will be there to support each other long after they leave Korea.  As many of these adoptees confide, they’ve walked a tight rope all their lives trying to please their adoptive parents and to fit in.  This became increasingly difficult as they went through adolescence and into adulthood.  In AKA Seoul, we experience their personal healing and see their complex identities emerge out of their interactions with each other and with their native culture.  Albeit, they are all at various stages of processing their experiences and this impacts their coherency but this makes it feel real.  Seeing this documentary at CAAMFest, where it will be followed up with a live discussion with at least two of the adoptees from the film, Dan Mathews and Min Matson, should be a very enriching experience.

More about CAAMFest 35:

CAAMFest celebrates its 35th year in 2017 with a ten day festival—March 9-19— in San Francisco and Oakland that explores the shifting tides of Asian American culture. Formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), CAAMFest expanded in 2013 beyond film to also include music and food from locales touched by Asian culture.  A presentation of the non-profit media organization, CAAM (Center for Asian American Media), CAAMFest’s film offerings include cutting-edge dramas, unflinching documentaries and innovative short films. Throughout CAAM’s history, the organization has supported documentary films and filmmakers by both funding and co-producing films.

This year’s festival will include 113 films and video— 22 feature narratives, 26 documentaries, 65 short films and videos. There will be 10 world premieres, 4 North American premieres, 3 US premieres, 14 West Coast premieres, 36 Bay Area premieres, and 1 special sneak preview.

Celebrating CAAMFest’s 35th anniversary, this year’s Special Presentations will include a diverse lineup of local and international spotlights, interactive works, anniversary screenings that revisit films from the 1980’s and 90’s, a Pacific Islander showcase, community screenings and touching documentaries on the legacy of Japanese American Internment.

Details: AKA Seoul screens at CAAMFest 35—Friday, March 10 (6:30 PM, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema) and Saturday, March 18 (8:20PM, New Parkway Theater, Oakland).  Purchase $14 tickets in advance online here.   The Alamo Drafthouse at New Mission is located at 2550 Mission Street, San Francisco (There will be a special food and drink menu exclusive to CAAMFest festival screenings.) The New Parkway Theater is located at 474 24th Street, Oakland)

To buy $20 tickets to Directions in Sound Friday, March 10, 9:30 PM at Gray Area (5 min walk from Alamo Drafthouse), featuring Dan Mathews (Dan AKA dan) and 4 other performers, click here.

For information about CAAMFest 35, visit http://caamfest.com/2017/.

March 8, 2017 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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