Movie Review: In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010)

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Whether it's an existential dilemma or a full-blown identity crisis, regardless of where you're from or how quickly you process it, chances are pretty good that you've struggled with the age old question “who am I?” at least once in your life. Likewise, obviously a majority of individuals manage to wrap up the issue with a pretty finite bow after they've come-of-age.

Regardless, those who've experienced major family shake-ups in childhood may have a harder time pinpointing a definitive sense of self especially in cases of adoption involving a series of unanswered questions about their foreign homeland and culture along with wondering if a parent had passed away or simply abandoned them.

Yet given the staggering number of overseas adoptions every year – particularly with babies from Asian countries who are sent to the United States – life in an adopted homeland with a family bound together by love has become so mainstream that hopefully it's eased the transition for children who learn how to assimilate in an entirely different surrounding.

However, for documentary filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem who was adopted from South Korea’s Sun Duck Orphanage by a California couple in 1966 when she was just eight years old, the question of identity has been one that’s lingered in her mind ever since she was given a pair of sneakers from the Borshays which she wore on her first flight to her American home.

Even though the shoes were a touch too big even then, it wasn’t until years later when Deann found the sheet of tissue paper which had been used to draw the outline of her feet for the Borshays who’d corresponded with her via a Sun Duck Orphanage social worker that Deann finally realized that she’d never been measured by anyone.

In other words, Deann wasn’t the girl the Borshays had wanted to adopt in the first place.

Born Kang Ok Jin, she came to the United States under the name of Cha Jung Hee – the name of the young girl who was intended to be sent to live with the Borshays whom Deann never met at Sun Duck.

After Cha Jung Hee disappeared from the orphanage one night, the social worker assigned to her case made the decision to switch identities by sending a girl who looked enough like Cha Jung Hee to the U.S. in her place, sealing Deann’s fate to live a far more affluent life in her adopted homeland.

Yet even though she tried to tell her American parents that she wasn’t really Cha Jung Hee when she learned enough English to communicate with them – ignoring the social worker’s request that she keep the secret – Deann never could get over the feeling that she was “trespassing on someone else’s life.”

And despite the fact that the Borshays loved Deann unconditionally even after they surmised the truth that their had been a switch, Deann became both increasingly curious about her background by wondering if her birth parents were still alive and further obsessed to uncover the fate of the real Cha Jung Hee.

A fascinating if at times confusing look at a stranger than fiction mix-up that involved at least three young Korean girls and several relatives, Liem’s succinct hour long follow-up to her Emmy nominated 2000 work First Person Plural takes us back to South Korea in her dual quest for her past and her present to uncover who she really is and what exactly happened.

And given the complexity of the case, Liem’s opening presentation of the timeline of events makes you think that perhaps she should’ve shown the documentary to a few people completely unfamiliar with her story and her previous film since it’s a head-scratcher to deduce what Deann knew at what age as she tries to bring us up to speed.

The director's work is at its best when she dedicates her footage to the mystery itself and at its self-indulgent worst during some cringe-worthy moments wherein Deann announces that she can’t see herself in home movies anymore, which makes you think that she needed a shoulder to cry on or a shrink to converse with instead of a cinematic platform.

Yet even though the first half of the movie is tonally all over the place and feels somewhat like an existential exercise, ultimately In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee redeems itself as we get caught up in Liem's plight.

Similarly, she does lose focus a bit by touching on some socioeconomic and ethical implications considering the business practice of adoption versus offering medical aid and/or welfare to poorer families and the social stigma of ostracized unwed pregnant mothers which makes you believe that Liem could’ve made at least three separate adoption related documentaries to better explore all of the points raised throughout.

Yet despite the thought-provoking hot-button issues that naturally make cameos throughout, it’s an intriguing and emotionally touching overview of a personal story in the context of a much bigger picture that makes me want to seek out the filmmaker’s first installment First Person Plural in order to absorb all of the information as well as hopefully find the answers to some questions left lurking in my mind about Liem’s captivating life.

Liem’s film-festival favorite offering In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee marks the final adoption related work to air on PBS’ longest-running American television documentary showcase award-winning POV.

All in all it’s passionate nonfiction filmmaking from start to finish. Moreover, Cha Jung Hee will especially inspire and engage audience members whose lives have been touched by adoption including this reviewer who counts among her very favorite relatives, a cousin who like Liem was adopted into a happy American family from South Korea one decade after the filmmaker arrived.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.