Dir. Deann Borshay Liem.
Born out of a burning and living inquiry, Deann Borshay Liem’s In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is the sequal to First Person Plural, the documentary depicting her life as a Korean War adoptee living in California, and coming to terms with her Korean identity and American identity. In this sequal, Deann shares her search for Cha Jung Hee, the woman whose identity she has lived with since her adoption in the ’60s. The original Cha Jung Hee disappeared from the orphanage, and Ok Chin took her place. A biting cruelty seems to run through the veins of the film, Deann introduces consistent sequences explaining the history of overseas adoption and its growth with the economic growth of the country. That alternate level of horror works on you the entire time, with every reminder of this experience as an epidemic, as something affecting potentially thousands of people. There’s something messy about her experience and recollection, and reflects in the intercutting.
Deann takes us down a blurry path, one with a history tainted by holes, names, histories of others. “I’m sorry it’s still haunting you,” says Hyo-Sun Park, after discussing with Deann the logic behind the switch-up years ago at the orphanage. Hyo-Sun Park is the social worker who purposely passed her, Ok Chin, off as Cha Jung Hee to Cha’s American sponsoring family in the ’60s. Deann literally was told that she was Cha Jung Hee. She had been living as Ok Chin before that, and was now Deann Borshay. Keep in mind that this is not a sentimentalized portrait of an off-the-books adoption. The social worker’s words burn the viewer with a sense of cruelty and lack of any real concern. Even her presence in the film becomes this intense dramatic entrance; this is the woman who decided Ok Chin’s lifelong fate. With some glue, and a wallet-size picture. There’s nothing totally apologetic about her reaction, and it almost seems like this probably wasn’t the only kid she did this with. Deann does this often throughout the film, where she presents the viewer with these sentimentally-rich scenarios, that have turned themselves on their own heads. She shows all. Nothing romanticized. No honesty is spared.
The film is blatant about its suggestion: the Korean economic doings were, and are, wrapped around around thousands of children’s lives. Public and private are stitched together. Deann brings in enough historical references, b-roll of thousands of other kids’ pictures who were sent overseas, to point toward evidence of an epidemic, a national and even international flaw. And therein lies the interesting, and somewhat thrilling tone of the film. While Deann is genuinely saddened by the spotty reactions, explanations, files that she comes across on this journey, it by all means works to anger and astonish the audience more than it makes them tear up with a half smile. The film beautifully brings the viewer to a place where accepting whatever’s happened, in all its fucked up and inhumane glory, is sometimes the only way to understand. Deann owns that in the gritty narrative, and really comes up against her almost life-long feeling that she has been “trespassing on someone else’s life.”
It seems that the more people she finds, the more questions arise. Impending unsureness lingers on the tongue of almost every person Deann encounters on her journey in Korea, on the pictures she collects, and even on the shoes that she wore on her move to America. The film is a layered circumscribed ball of rubber bands, held together with gaps of trapped air. There’s something immensely honest about the way Deann pieces together her journey, owning the horror in what a war can do to a community, and the beauty in what did happen, rather than what could have or what wasn’t.