“I come from here and elsewhere. I am neither white, nor black. The colour of my skin is honey.” -Jung Henin, Approved for Adoption
We all come from somewhere. We take it for granted that we may have the same shaped eyes as our mother, or the same eye colour as our grandmother; maybe the inherited eccentricities of our grandfather, or the physical frame of our father. However, for many of the 200 000 South Koreans who have been internationally adopted since the end of the Korean War, these simple and innocuous musings are relative unknowns.
Approved for Adoption, part-animation, part-documentary, part-autobiographical account poignantly articulates the experience of South Korean-born, Jung Henin, adopted as a five-year old into a large Belgian family in 1971. It is a film that chronicles Jung’s personal struggle for belonging; the emotional dilemmas that he faces as he negotiates his way through the quagmire of cultural differences and relationships, and ultimately the yearning for a mother’s love.
How often might you have wondered whether you were adopted because you didn’t feel you belonged; or there were times when your parents irritated you so much that you felt that you most definitely were adopted? For the adoptee, these statements are ironic, as, conversely, they may have wished that they had not been adopted, inevitably, feeling the struggle of identifying with their adoptive family and the culture of their adopted homeland. Such is the complexity of family, and Approved for Adoption traces these intricacies in a humorous and at times highly-emotive way. Jung’s talent for drawing and art is conveyed through the charming animation, which is interspersed with personal video material from the 70s, Jung’s voiceover and docu-style footage of Jung in Seoul in the present day, as he pursues his roots. Some might quibble at the bi-polarity of genre, but it is exactly this mélange that ties in expressively with Jung’s artistic prowess and the retrospective and nostalgic element that emanates throughout the film. Ultimately, the film finds its focal point with footage of Jung meandering his way through Seoul in the present day as he seeks to reconcile his past and to pursue information about his birth mother.
The narrative is cemented in the animation of Jung’s childhood growing up in Belgium amongst people who adopted Koreans because it was supposedly ‘chic’. We are given little insight into his parent’s motivations for adopting Jung and his sister. Although Jung expresses the love he feels towards his adoptive parents, the relationship is constantly volatile, as Jung tests them with the devious behaviour of a young child. Forming a bond with his siblings is not hard, for kids are easily adaptable- Jung connects with his brother through pranks and all his sisters want is for him to be their brother. Where he is from or what he looks like seems to have little bearing on the fact that he is their brother, by blood or not. Having a disdain for the other Korean adoptees in his town and constantly feeling like an outsider and the “little Asian” or “chink” in the family, Jung retreats into the world of art and drawing, imagining himself as Japanese and metamorphosing his drawings into his reality. It is through art that Jung seeks out a new reality. In a bittersweet moment he ruminates that “not knowing your biological parents has an upside. They can be just the way you like.”
As a French/Belgian collaboration, many will question whether it is entirely a relevant pick for the KOFFIA line-up. However, despite much of the narrative taking place in Belgium, the story is one of truly Korean origin and deserves to be told. The hybridity of the narrative- the Belgian environment, the French language and the racial factors, ensures that it encapsulates the push-pull dynamics that are incumbent of the adoptee experience. This does not mean that each adoptee’s experience is cookie-cut; the assumptions that an adoptee will be ‘mixed-up’, ‘troubled’, suffer from an ‘identity crisis’, are all too simplistic. As a Korean adoptee myself, the film conveyed a journey that is not unfamiliar to me. Henin is able to sensitively convey the complexity of growing up as an adoptee, but at the same time express that he was also just like any other energetic, rascally child. The artistic direction of the film is charming, and the dark nature of the drawings that emerge in some scenes powerfully evokes the emotions that cannot be uttered. Audiences will find moments of connection and heart-wrenching sadness as Jung relays his story. At the heart of the narrative is a story of belonging and identity, of family ties and culture. Approved for Adoption is a film of finding reconciliation with who we are, where we come from.
They say that the nuclear family does not exist. Perhaps ask yourself: “Where do you come from, from somewhere, or nowhere…” 'Roots' by Little Comet, from the Approved for Adoption soundtrack.
By Margaret Hurrell