In today’s sometimes hostile political environment, the question of transnational adoption has become a hot button issue with adoptees raised abroad in sometimes difficult circumstances where paper work was never correctly filed finding themselves exiled to the land of their birth despite having no knowledge of the culture and no means to support themselves. Documentarian Malene Choi, a Korean-Danish adoptee herself, frames her first narrative feature around this very thorny issue, taking inspiration from her own experiences and from those of fellow adoptees from around the world she encountered during her own attempts to find her birth parents and unlock the secrets of her history.
The central narrative revolves around two Korean-Danish adoptees, Karoline (Karoline Sofie Lee) and Thomas (Thomas Hwan), who meet for the first time at a hostel exclusively for “returnees” traveling to Korea to find their birth parents. Karoline, nervous and conflicted, talks to some of the other guests hoping to find strength in their stories of successful reunion but the stories she gathers are generally less conclusive than she perhaps expected them to be. Choi, originally planning to make a documentary focussing on the hostel itself, often found the same things – that guests would appear and disappear after only a few weeks, returning perhaps years later either to visit their birth families or to try pressing the adoption agencies again in the hope of finding more information.
Karoline’s own visit to the adoption agency turns out to less positive than she’d envisaged. The “excessively polite” employee managing her case explains that although there is actually “quite a lot” of information attached to Karoline’s file – her mother’s full name (only without her Chinese characters to help narrow it down further), a verified date and place of birth, and a reason the adoption was sought, none of it is much use in trying to find her birth mother. Later discussing the meeting with Thomas who seems a little more experienced, Karoline begins to doubt she was told the whole story and is convinced that the adoption agency is either wilfully holding information back or is simply disinterested in helping her.
Given the various circumstances surrounding international adoption from Korea from the end of the Korean War through the pre-democratic period, the government and adoption agencies might have reasons to avoid revealing the entirety of the truth. In an interview talking about the genesis of her film, Choi mentions meeting a British researcher who described the process of adoptions in this period as akin to “human trafficking”. Children, not only infants but those old enough to have memories of Korea and of their birth families, were sometimes taken without it being fully understood that they were being adopted and sent abroad, never to be returned to their parents or relatives.
A fictionalised scene of a child reuniting with a mother tells a common yet tragic story of a young girl taken advantage of by an older boy, falling pregnant, and then being disowned by her family. Talked into signing adoption papers she tries to change her mind once the child is born, but it’s whisked away from her after only seconds and she is powerless to resist. A combination of oppressive social forces from an unforgiving conformist society which looks down on “immoral” women pregnant out of wedlock to economic impossibilities and bureaucratic concerns all conspire to remove children from their birth families without proper scrutiny or much thought for where exactly they might be going.
Though Karoline and Thomas appear to have been raised well in loving families, they have each experienced other difficulties which have left them feeling adrift, caught between two cultures an unsure where exactly they fit. Karoline’s socially conservative parents were ill equipped to support her when she experienced racial bullying from the other children. They saw her as their daughter and a Dane and therefore could not understand why others didn’t because to them she “doesn’t even look Korean” – well meaning though they might have been, their solution to her suffering was an attempt to erase her ethnicity rather than embrace it. Though Thomas’ experiences were different he too experienced typically xenophobic micro aggressions, but it was the aggressors’ constant taunts of “go back to where you came from” that most hurt him. His persecutors seemed to have such a clear idea of where he “belonged” when he himself did not.
This sense of dislocation is further brought out by Thomas and Karoline’s experiences in Korea where they find themselves supposedly “at home” yet unable to communicate as neither of them speak Korean or have the necessary cultural knowledge to easily navigate the city. It also puts them at a disadvantage in their respective quests, leaving them reliant on the kindness of the hosts at the hostel to help explain some of the information they’ve been able to find as well as interpreting for them when they need to ask further questions.
Yet for others, a return Korea has become a kind of answer in itself. Another American adoptee Thomas meets at the hostel first came to Korea for only a few days but felt an instant connection, as if he’d finally found what it was he’d been looking for. His adopted family, however, were far from happy with his desire to explore his Korean roots and made him an ultimatum (something which might explain why he had previously felt so unhappy) which convinced him to move “back” to Korea on a more permanent basis, certain it was the place he was “truly” supposed to be. The hostel becomes a kind of community base in itself, connecting Korean adoptees from across the world who have each had very different experiences but share something otherwise unique. Thomas, however, remains conflicted, unsure if the connection to his fellow adoptees is real or illusionary, created out of his own desire to find in them what he sought in himself.
Making use of her documentary background, Choi mixes the real and the fictional, blending unscripted sequences and interactions with non-actors with a fiercely hyper naturalist approach only to undercut it with the artifice of strange and unexpected cuts to remind us we are watching a construction. Rather than an attempt to undermine the idea of adoption itself transnational or otherwise, Choi’s aims to look at the complicated, often uncomfortable, ideas of identity, belonging, and family through her protagonists’ continuing struggle to find resolution. Feeling as if they’ve been robbed of their histories, Karoline and Thomas’ quest is an attempt to come to terms with the loss of something which perhaps cannot be returned, but only eased through the restoration of a severed connection.
The Return was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 and will also be screened plus Q&A with actress Karoline Sofie Lee in London on 14th November as the closing night gala of the London Korean Film Festival.
Original trailer (English language dialogue/subtitles)