Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review – A Brand New Life

December 30, 2010

A Brand New Life – South Korea, 2009

There’s a moment towards the beginning of A Brand New Life when a man does not react to his daughter’s brief embrace. It’s a moment that should be insignificant; after all, from what we have seen of their activities earlier in the day, the man could be forgiven for being tired. It was the kind of day that is truly enthralling for a child and extremely exhausting for a parent – bicycling, shopping, walking along streets for the first time. Such moments filled young Jinhee (Sae Ron Kim) with such happiness that she felt the urge to sing her father a truly sweet song expressing how deeply she loved him. Given all this, the father’s reaction to his daughter’s embrace should be inconsequential. However, as the film progresses, I found myself returning to it and seeing it in other ways. Could he have been indifferent? The following day seems like an extension of the previous day at first – a bus ride into new areas, the purchase of a big cake so that Jinhee can impress the children she’s about to meet, and some timely fatherly advice. Minutes later, Jinhee’s father (Kyung-qu Sol) slips quietly out the school’s gate. He does not say good-bye, and he does not return.

Viewers looking for an explanation for the father’s actions will be disappointed. In truth, it’s likely that no explanation will ever suffice. That said, we do get two possible rationalizations for the actions of Jinhee’s father. There’s the official, possibly sanitized version, that her father just wants her to have a better home, and there’s the explanation that Jinhee offers up – that her family was extremely angry after her baby brother had been injured while in her care. Neither explanation seems complete, and yet neither can be completely discredited either, for we learn little else about Jinhee’s earlier years. I suspect that for many people no excuse will ever justify the father’s actions. I remember showing a class the scene in The Joy Luck Club in which Suyuan leaves her two children on the side of the road after becoming too exhausted to carry them any further. Her plight did not move my students at all. To them, she was simply wrong for abandoning them. Perhaps they’re right. However, Jinhee’s explanation makes one thing clear - she blames herself.

Jinhee’s new home is filled with young children, and she’s surprised to learn that, like her, not all of them are orphans, a fact which hints at a much larger social problem. We meet an older girl named Yeshin (Ah-sung Ko) who has a bad foot that affects her mobility. She worries that anyone who would adopt someone like her would only be doing so because they wanted a servant. Her only hope of avoiding such a fate rests on the shoulders of a young man who delivers groceries to the school. Another girl at the orphanage is Sookhee (Do Yeon Park), a twelve year old with a secret that she worries might discourage people from adopting her if it were ever discovered. At night Yeshin and Sookhee use cards that they believe can tell their future. Sookhee believes she is destined for a life overseas, and when a foreign couple arrives looking to adopt a child, she tries her utmost to impress them with her vibrancy and worldly interests. Jinhee simply looks down, frowns, and refuses to answer any of their questions. She’s still waiting for her father to return.

According to IMDB, the movie is inspired by director Ounie Lecomte’s own life story, and perhaps that is so much remains unexplained. We don’t learn what happens to Jinhee’s family or the fates of any of her friends at the orphanage. That’s reality. People enter and exit our lives regularly, and until recently rarely has there been a means of getting an update of people that we’ve lost contact with. So in lieu of answers, we see a series of patterns. We see the pageantry of the orphanage, the way children are made to look their best for prospective parents. We see the group picture they take every time one of them leaves, hear the children sing “Auld Lang Syne” as the adopted child prepares to leave, and hear the kind voice of Director Koo (Man-seok Oh) deliver a simple message to the departing child: Take care. Each separation is particularly emotional, especially Yeshin’s. And there are the lessons about life - often tough ones – that Jinhee learns. One comes as a result of an insensitive nurse; another from trying to care for an injured bird. In the former instance, all Jinhee can do is look straight at the nurse and ask, “Why didn’t you keep your promise?” It’s a question she could ask many people.

A Brand New Life is a very good film that is made even better by the amazing performance of Sae Ron Kim. Lecomte, here making her directorial debut, displays a knack for getting very authentic performances from her cast and for letting a story develop at a natural pace. A lesser skilled director would fill a movie such as this one with dramatic emotional outbursts or end it with a surprise ending that would lessen much of the impact of the events that preceded it. A Brand New Life ends, not in the most ideal way possible, but in the most realistic. Life is progressing, and Jinhee is looking at it through a perspective that under ideal situations she would not have. She doesn’t have the same smile as she had in the opening scene, but there’s hope that it will return to her one day. I look forward to seeing more of Lecomte’s films in the future. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 and a half stars

*A Brand New Life is in Korean with English subtitles.

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