KoreAm Magazine- November issue (Article by Julie Ha):
The past two decades have seen a tremendous growth in the exploration of the Korean adoptee experience, through documentaries, plays, books and blogs. A new film, Approved for Adoption, was not intended to add to that body of work, or as its filmmaker Jung Henin poetically put it, “to add a new stone to the building.”
Rather, he states that his film simply tells his story and expresses his need as an artist to “dig the same hole,” addressing such themes as abandonment, identity, roots and family, which are recurrent in Henin’s work. He has been making comics for 20 years under the byline “Jung,” and Approved for Adoption, co-directed with Laurent Boileau, is based on his autobiographical graphic novel, Couleur de Peau: Miel (Color of Skin: Honey), which chronicles his experiences as a Korean adoptee raised in Belgium. The French-Belgian co-production is a hybrid film, incorporating Henin’s own animation, intercut with super-8 archival footage and documentary-style scenes of the artist returning to Korea as a 43-year-old for the first time since his adoption.
“I needed to put into words and images an interior pain, which may seem sometimes abstract to others,” explained Henin, adopted at age 5 by a Belgian couple, who already had four blond-haired biological children. “And I have chosen to do it without concessions, and by sparing no one.”
Indeed, the audience gets an intimate glimpse into the adoptee’s early life in Europe, as he struggles with fitting into his new family. One feels the sting of not belonging, after he overhears his grandmother saying to his mother, “Sorry, I keep forgetting about your little Asian.” His adoptive mother, a somewhat stoic woman, is not always the most patient with her foreign son, but the young Henin doesn’t exactly earn positive points with his naughty shenanigans, such as forging good grades and stealing money.
There are poignant moments, too, as Henin develops close relationships with his siblings, who see him as one of them, defending him against schoolmates who call him “chink.” Even so, Henin still feels compelled to ask one of his sisters, “Do you really think of me as your brother?” And the audience realizes the answer to where he belongs is not such a simple proposition in the mind of this adoptee, already abandoned once.
What would serve as a constant comfort and companion throughout his childhood and even into adulthood was drawing. In this world, he could dream up his birth mother in any way he wanted, he says in the film.
“I learned to draw because something in me wanted to express itself,” Henin told KoreAm, in emailed answers translated from French. “Drawing allowed me to create an imaginary world for myself, and to invent another life. There, I was able to live an imaginary love with my biological mother. In a way, drawing has been my therapy.”
Though Henin has long explored themes of abandonment and identity through the filter of fiction, he said that Approved for Adoption represents his decision to “stop playing hide-and-seek” with himself. It is his attempt to answer how one rebuilds his life after a trauma disrupts its natural course.
“I have learned in the course of life that self-reconstruction takes time, and goes unavoidably through the acceptance of what we are,” said Henin. “This is especially true for someone like me, who has lived his abandonment like a disgrace, a shame.
“The wound linked to abandonment never disappears; one has to learn to live with it. The scar stays, but let’s say that it does not hurt anymore. Many people suffer traumas that are as serious as abandonment. I want to show through this film that abandonment does not lead us irreparably to tragedy. Self-reconstruction is possible.”
And the audience gets to see, by the end of the film, a touching moment shared between a teenage Henin and his mother, who finally reveals to her son, flailing in self-destructive behavior, what is in her heart. We see that there is indeed hope for this former orphan, who is neither black nor white, but honey-colored.
Tragically, Henin’s younger sister, also adopted from Korea, never got that chance to find hope. The film shows us her arrival in the Henin household, and a young Jung’s apparent disdain for her—a feeling one could interpret as a result of his own self-loathing. The film’s narrator tells us later that this sister, as a young woman, dies in a mysterious car accident, and suggests it may have been suicide.
“This accident happened at a moment when she was suffering greatly internally,” Henin told KoreAm. “Like a string that we strongly pull from each side, at one point, it breaks. Like some other adopted people, she did not succeed in finding her place between the West and Korea. Life did not give her enough time or resources to blossom.”
While Henin says he does not “participate in controversies,” his film looks somewhat critically at international adoption from Korea, showing archival footage that portrayed the practice as the “chic” thing for Westerners to do at the time.
“What is done is done, we cannot rewrite history,” said Henin. “Now, it is the Korean government that has to take the necessary measures in order to definitely stop the abandonments, and to help the adopted Koreans who want help.”
“I am not against adoption, … but it should not exist in this form. At one time, two-thirds of the international adoptions were originally from South Korea. Too many Korean children have been abandoned and sent throughout the world. Then, we also have to think about the single mothers who all these years have suffered from this situation as much as the adopted people. It is a cultural problem; the mentalities have to change. A single mother should never be forced to give up her child. It is totally against nature.”
Approved for Adoption has already garnered several awards in Europe. It opened on Nov. 8 at the Angelika Film Center in New York City and will open Nov. 22 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Los Angeles. GKIDS and Rainbow World, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting multimedia content about international/transracial adoption, are releasing the film in observation of National Adoption Awareness Month. The third volume in his graphic novel series, on which the movie is based, is being released in Korea this month. The positive feedback to such personal work has surprised and genuinely moved Henin, who didn’t expect it would resonate so deeply with others.
“One message that has touched me the most is the one from a young woman whose cousin, an adopted Korean, committed suicide,” he described. “She thanked me because, through my story, it is also the story of her cousin, which continues to exist. An adopted Korean wrote to me that he has managed to re-establish a dialogue with his adoptive parents after watching the movie with them.”
“This really turned me upside down,” said Henin. “I was not conscious that [my story] could be such an echo.”
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