Oomie Lecomte’s film A Brand New Life fills an interesting position in the pantheon of Korean cinema. It is a woman’s film made by a foreigner, and by that token alone it is somewhat of an anomaly. While decidedly European in many aspects, it still succeeds in engaging with many thematic elements commonly associated with Korean cinema. In addition, the film is set in 1975 and features a storyline in which characters with unfortunate pasts come and go as circumstances beyond their control dictate.
The film begins with Jin-hee, who is having a great day with her father: he buys her new clothes, they go out to eat, and she rides with him on his bicycle. Then they take a bus, buy a cake, and he drops her off at an orphanage. She catches a glimpse of him as he leaves, and that is the last she will ever see of him. Now she must adapt to her new surroundings and come to terms with the fact that her father has abandoned her.
*Take note that there are some minor spoilers below*
In watching this film I was reminded of Take Care of my Cat (2001), which also features strong elements of female bonding. Nine-year old Jin-hee has trouble fitting in at first, mainly through her own resistance, it is only when she befriends a slightly older girl that she calms down. Later, when her friend is adopted by Americans, she will begin to act up again. Camaraderie strikes me as an important element of the narrative, and by extension the need for acceptance. All the other girls seem to get along very well, and none are mean to Jin-hee when she first arrives, which we would normally expect. They are polite, well-behaved, and seem relatively happy.
Certainly they are well-treated by the nuns of the orphanage, who genuinely seem to care for them and help them to find homes, but they also seem completely cut off from the realities of Korean society circa 1975. Men are also missing from their lives, and yet the only negative effects felt within the walls of the orphanage are due to men: Jin-hee acts out because her father has abandoned her, and the older girl with the bad leg (whose name escapes me) attempts to take her own life because she is rejected by a young man.
The film is quite short by Korean standards, only 92 minutes, but packs quite an emotional punch during its fleeting running time. Less accusatory than reflective, A Brand New Life evokes nostalgia and asks questions without pointing too many fingers. It is a debut effort from Lecomte and is loosely based on her early years in Korea and I wonder if she will make another film in her birthplace. The young actress who plays Jin-hee, Kim Sae-ron, who was also in last year’s The Man From Nowhere (2010), is a revelation. Sol Kyung-gu is also featured briefly in the beginning of the film, although his face is deliberately hidden save for one shot. Since his appearance could not be considered much more than a cameo I wonder if he was included to represent some of the characters he played in his career, Peppermint Candy (1999) comes to mind, where he played traumatized middle-aged men that have most often failed to keep a family together. All in all, a very strong and atmospheric effort that is worth a look.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.