A definite eye-opening film in this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is Malene Choi Jensen’s feature-length debut The Return. Like the title, the film appears simple on the surface, with its starkly minimalist style. But through the journeys – introspective and retrospective – of two Danish-Korean adoptees (like Choi Jensen herself) visiting South Korea in the hopes of finding and even reuniting with their respective birth parents, one discovers a work of profound sensitivity and remarkably balanced multi-layered perspectives on searching for and authoring the narrative that is one’s (adoptee) identity.
Choi Jensen’s film undeniably fits into the category of films on transnational adoption and, even more precisely, that of Korean adoptee-authored films. At the same time, she deviates from the prevalent documentary pattern of such films. With its meticulous visual style – which becomes all the more surprising for the emotional details that it reveals alongside the characters – and blending of documentary and fiction, The Return can also be described as an art film that just happens to be about Korean adoptees. By extension, though it ‘should’ be considered a fiction film, given the staged scenes and professional actors among the majority of non-professional actors in the film, it strongly aligns with documentary for the kind of truths and perspectives that it carves out regarding the physical/psychological processes involved in researching one’s adoption history and a specific space that provides aid to overseas adoptees in a variety of ways.
The Return takes what would otherwise be a peripheral element in adoption narratives as its narrative roots in KoRoot, a real-life guesthouse in Seoul specifically for adoptees. It is in this place of transition where two Danish-Korean adoptees, Karoline (Karoline Sofie Lee) and Thomas (Thomas Hwan) meet. During their respective searches for birth parents, they develop a close relationship and meet others who share their experiences and perspectives, which provide explicit documentary moments throughout the film. A prime example is HyoJung, who is a little bit older than the others and therefore a little bit deeper in her journey, having already established a relationship with her birth parents. Significantly, her scenes are shot in intimate close-ups that do not resort to shot/reverse shots of Karoline; the focus is thus entirely on HyoJung’s words and narrative as a Korean-American adoptee. JooYoung is another Korean-American adoptee whose experiences greatly colour her work as a multi-disciplinary artist.
Unlike with HyoJung, though with the same intensity of attention towards her expression of identity, the sequences with JooYoung show her with Karoline sharing her work. Thomas also encounters at KoRoot a young unnamed man who speaks of his experiences, especially the emotional connection to South Korea that seized him upon his arrival; so much so that he made the difficult decision to live in South Korea. For it was a decision that came at a price: his adopted parents essentially told him to either return to them after pursuing the search for his birth parents or to never return if he wants to further pursue his own return to Korea. With this ‘interview,’ presented in a plain two-shot, the complexity of identity (formation) and sense of (non)belonging among adoptees is softly expressed, not to mention the film title’s intricate multi-directionality of meaning.
Similarly, the straightforwardness of the cut and medium/long shots masks emotion-laden situations and interactions. Paired with an unadorned mise-en-scène and tableau-like staging of limited movement of camera and bodies, the abruptness and plainness of the cut instills a respect and empathy in the film while refusing to dramatise scenes in a falsifying or exaggerated way. A strange statement about a film that mixes actual/staged scenes, professional/non-professional actors, but one that aptly describes the film’s most affecting scene: Thomas’ reunion with his birth mother at her place and accompanied by Karoline and a translator, scripted but captured in the first take in a sustained medium long shot, with the mother and Thomas played by professional actors. Yet the truths it lays bare is powerful and real, as witness Karoline’s reaction to the scene while being a part of it and the fact that single mothers and adoption in South Korea remain taboo.
Truths also surface during Karoline and Thomas’ walks around Seoul and Modo Island in a way that is refreshing compared to documentary talking heads, as the spaces they explore tacitly contribute to their conversations about adoptee experiences. Though the film invites a reading of a developing romantic relationship between them, it does not allow itself that easy recourse because its primary concern is the process of working through and expressing one’s identity as a Korean adoptee. Each process is as individual as the people themselves. That the film concludes with Karoline returning to Modo Island on her own – to continue her search, yes, but also to weave her own narrative of finding/not finding, on her terms instead of the adoption agency’s – is indicative of these points.
And this film is Choi Jensen’s own authoring of her identity. The film counts itself among Korean adoption films, while also transcending this category; as documentary but with fictional elements. And so Karoline, Thomas, HyoJung, and JooYoung are both/and instead of one-or-the-other.
The Return is showing on July 7 at the New York Asian Film Festival.