How would you cope if your entire life were to change suddenly and without warning? And you were nine-years-old?
It is 1975, and 9-year-old Jinhee takes a bike ride with her father to buy some brand new clothes. They go eat at a restaurant, where her father allows her to drink a tiny bit of wine. The next day, she wears the new dress, clothes, and shoes while on a bus ride with her father to some place near Seoul. They go shopping for a cake and then take the cake to some small building complex. Her father tells her to get along with the kids and do what the adults tell her to do. Confused, Jinhee asks him if he is leaving her there, but he says that he is going in with her.
A nun greets the two of them at the gate and takes them to the director of the place. The director suggests that the nun take Jinhee on a tour of the complex while he speaks with her father. The nun brings her to a room to introduce her to a bunch of other young girls and Jinhee’s suspicions get the better of her. She runs out to see her father walking away on the other side of the gate and the director walking towards her with the cake. Her father has left her at an orphanage.
Jinhee goes back to the room with all of the girls, but her previous quiet nervousness has given way to sullen silence. All of the other girls are smiling and thanking her for the cake, but they have stopped asking her questions.
Though all signs point to it, Jinhee refuses to believe that her father has abandoned her; she insists that he will come back for her. Thus, she shuts down all efforts to get her to change out of her fancy clothes and into orphanage attire. During outside time, she tries to hide behind some bushes near the wall. Some of the girls notice her and make fun of her. When it is time to go inside, she stays outside, and the nuns allow her to. That night, she sneaks into the kitchen and quietly cries herself to sleep. The nuns find her and take her to her bed. She wakes up to see some of the girls playing with some fortune teller cards, and commenting on how there is a new girl. Now she starts to cry for real.
Unable to simply hide away, Jinhee spends the next day acting out. She flings her food to the ground at breakfast. Sookhee, one of the slightly older girls who had mocked her, offers to clean up the mess while telling her to stop acting like a baby. Later on, Jinhee goes to the director and insists that she is not like the other girls. The director counters that not all of the girls there are orphans. She then demands that she get her fancy clothes back.
When that does not work, she scales the wall, in an attempt to escape. It is not a particularly high wall, but it is high enough for her to get hurt if she falls. Not to mention the gate, which looks like it has spikes at the top. Jinhee climbing the wall causes a huge scene. Sookhee climbs up to try to get her down, but that does not work. So, while the younger nun ushers the other girls back inside, the nanny opens the gate and tells Jinhee that she can leave.
After the nanny and the older nun go inside, Jinhee climbs down and walks out. But there is nothing down the road. So, she sneaks back into the kitchen at night to cry and scavenge for food. Jinhee hears a noise in the nearby room and goes to see Sookhee trying to wash out blood from her underwear, but Jinhee probably does not know why. She runs upstairs to see the girls playing cards again. Sookhee follows her and whispers to Jinhee that she is dead if she tells anyone.
It is Sunday, time to go to church (probably a first for her) and to get a checkup. Jinhee is still sullen, unwilling to accept that he father will not return. She gets a rude awakening when it is time to get a shot. The nurse agrees to tell her when she will give her the shot, but then doesn’t. Jinhee seems more upset at the broken promise than the pain of the needle. Another lie by an adult.
It is the one-on-one session with the doctor that Jinhee finally starts to open up. When he asks her why she believes that she was left at the orphanage, she says that she was holding her newborn half-brother when he got poked by a safety pin. She thinks that her parents blamed her for hurting the baby and sent her to the orphanage to get rid of her. The doctor insists that her father sent her to the orphanage to give her the chance at a better life.
Though she is still unhappy at her supposed better life, Jinhee does start to bond with Sookhee, particularly when they find an injured bird. Jinhee asks Sookhee why she does not tell anyone about the bleeding, particularly the doctor. Sookhee…sort of explains periods to Jinhee, saying that no one would adopt a girl on her period. Jinhee gets semi-confirmation of this when they go to steal some food from the kitchen for the bird and overhear the nanny arguing with Yeshin, the oldest orphan. Yeshin is upset at the prospect of becoming a family maid, but the nanny says that it is the best offer that she is going to get, given that she is already around sixteen and has a bad leg.
After watching an American serviceman give a goofy puppet show about American adoption, Sookhee tells Jinhee about how her mother had abandoned her and how she is destined to be adopted into an American family. Jinhee, perhaps either still expecting for her father to return or afraid of yet another shakeup of the status quo, says that she is not going anywhere. Sookhee, however, is determined, going up to the White people who visit the orphanage and using every English phrase that she knows. Jinhee notices it, wondering if yet another person in her life is going to disappear.
Before a rich South Korea aggressively imported its pop culture to the world, a poor South Korea imported its children. The movie is very loosely based on the childhood of the director, Ounie Lecomte. Lecomte was the same age as Jinhee in 1975 and had spent a year in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Seoul before being adopted into a French family. South Korea in the 1970s was a difficult place to live, and it was not uncommon for parents to leave their children in orphanages. There were other reasons for them to do so, such as divorce and remarriage. The hard times and a remarriage are probably why Jinhee gets abandoned, but she does not know this. She just has to adjust, whether she likes it or not.
Pretty much the entire movie is from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl. Luckily, someone found a wonderful actress in Kim Sae-ron. I rarely talk about actors or acting in this series, but I have to make an exception here. This was Kim’s first on-screen role and it was as the protagonist. Not only did she have to carry the film, she had to carry a South Korean film that is mostly lacking the emotional support system that a lot of South Korean films have. Given that the director is French and brings a somewhat more European sensibility to the film, it tends to avoid milking drama for all that it is worth. One could compare the relatively hands-off emotional style of this film to one of Kim Sae-ron’s next movies, The Man from Nowhere. I love that movie (and will talk about it in a couple of months) but it was very emotionally manipulative. This is not to say that A Brand New Life is a cold movie; far from it. I merely mean that the movie’s emotional center rests primarily on the performances of the actors, particularly on Kim. It also leaves wider room for interpretation of Jinhee’s behavior and her situation, instead of guiding viewer sympathies or telling them how to feel. The situation may be incredibly sad, but the movie is not quite so. So, even if A Brand New may not be a purely Korean production, it did introduce Korea to a brand new talent, and the style let her shine by herself. Kim would spend much of the last ten years playing girls who are placed in traumatic situations and/or are deeply troubled. At least that is her movie career; her TV career may be…uh…different…ahem. I have not really followed K-Dramas in a while. In any case, she had a really deep impact as a child and teen actor and I wish nothing but the best for her in her career as an adult.
I very much appreciated that the movie’s narrative does not stack the deck against Jinhee. Her family abandoned her at an orphanage with no warning. That is terrible enough. There is no need to compound things any more by providing extra drama. Perhaps it is due to the director’s own childhood, but the movie could have easily made the orphanage be a den of corruption and abuse, which is fodder for another “based on a true story” movie that I might talk about some other time. While the adults at the orphanage are not perfect and some of their actions could be called into question, they are hardly evil; they are simply trying to do the best that they can for these girls and send them off to lives that are better than what they had. And, while Sookhee is initially set up to be an antagonist, a second viewing of the film reveals that she is mostly just reacting negatively to Jinhee’s admittedly terrible behavior. And they don’t become friends due to Jinhee finally fighting back or saving her life or whatever; it is mostly just due to Jinhee keeping Sookhee’s secret, and that specific element kind of gets dropped soon enough anyways. You want a miseryfest about international adoption that stars Kim Sae-ron? There is always Barbie. I…did not like that movie.
This general lack of additional drama allows for the central drama to be front and center: how does Jinhee react to being abandoned and how does she adjust to her new situation? Her reaction is horrible; understandable, but still horrible. She cannot process that her father lied to her and left her. She cannot process the utter lack of control that she has over her life. She cannot understand that the nuns and the other girls are people too. She should not have to, but she has to. The movie shows how she changes herself, even if she does not quite realize it herself. That is the crux of the drama, what she does is no less important than what is being done to her. The movie does not throw out extra obstacles in her path: if anything, it attempts to gently guide her through a tough situation and in the right direction, even if she herself resists. The same could be said about most of the other characters. It is a testament of the trust given to such young girls that the movie could rely on their characters, as opposed to a series of external miserable maladies, to be the driving force of the drama. Sure, Korean cinema does that very well, but sometimes it is nice to change it up a bit…or a lot. There is one scene late in the film, after one terrible incident. The fallout could have been exploited in a huge tearjerking scene and, yet, the movie goes in the complete opposite direction, without explanation. That switch up initially confused me, but I found it to be utterly refreshing.
This movie is terrific. That is all.
WTF ASIA 64: Umrika (India: 2015, approx. 96 minutes)
WTF ASIA 65: AV Idol (Japan: 2012, approx. 99 minutes)