Thursday, September 30, 2010

A peculiar family portrait, not yet complete

Filmmaker documents post-adoption family reunion

By Lee Hyo-won

In any given fairytale, heroes overcome obstacles to arrive at a rewarding finale, but the lingering question remains — what happens in the happily ever after part?

It’s been 60 years since the Korean War (1950-53) broke out, but its remnants continue to haunt: beginning with war orphans, some 200,000 children were sent for international adoption. Television programs here frequently feature adoptees sharing their life story in a 30-second recap to search for their birth families and have dramatic reunions.

But what happens afterward?

“I wanted to raise awareness about the adoptive experience,” said director Tammy Chu, who documented the aftermath of a reunion between a mother and son in “Resilience.” “One of the things that struck me was, it’s amazing to meet your family, but the process afterward is a whole new story.”

The film, now showing in local theaters after a successful run through the international film festival circuit, follows the story of Noh Myung-ja, who gave birth to Sung-wook when she was 18. Her husband gambled away their money and Noh was forced to make a living on her own. When the hardships continued, Noh’s relatives put her son up for adoption — without her consent. She searched for her baby but to no avail. She now has a loving daughter, but not a day has gone by, she says, without her heart aching for her lost child.

Thirty years down the road, Sung-wook is now known as Brent Beesley by family and friends in South Dakota. While growing up in a small town where Asians barely make up the demographics, things weren’t too rough for this kid who was rumored to be related to Bruce Lee. He is now himself a single father to two beautiful daughters.

Beesley began searching for his birth family not out of a haunting identity crisis, but in hopes of retrieving medical records that might be useful for his elder daughter’s heart condition. The mother and son reunite and, though cautious, try to learn about each other and make amends for the separation and loss. Cultural and linguistic barriers as well as geographical distance are problems, but the sight of two strikingly similar faces smoking cigarettes together through bouts of laughter shows an undeniable, deeply palpable affinity.

Chu can relate firsthand to sharing a cigarette with her birth mother. She herself was adopted by an American family, along with her twin sister, at age nine. Her father fell ill after the family business went bankrupt and a neighbor suggested adoption to her struggling mother.

The adoption agency, however, misinformed Chu’s mother. “They told her that my sister and I would be well off in a rich family and that we could stay in touch and reunite 10 years later,” she said. But once Chu and her sister arrived at the orphanage connected to the agency, their mother was deprived of all contact. Not knowing that their parents were searching for them, the teenaged twins wrote to the adoption agency and finally met their parents and two younger brothers.

“My parents regretted it; my mom had so much guilt and she never got over it. There were children that were abandoned but there were also cases where things were done unethically or falsified. I wanted to get information about it out there,” she said.

This isn’t Chu’s first film on adoption; her first work “Searching for Gohyang (Hometown)” captures her own soul-searching process of tracing back to her Korean roots. In “Resilience,” Chu could have easily capitalized on the emotional realms of Noh and Beesley’s dramatic story, but she keeps the camera at a distance and allows the story to unravel on its own while retaining a critical view of problems in adoption policies. “There wasn’t much regulation (regarding international adoption) until the 1990s,” said the director.

As the opening comments in “Resilience” say, poverty, inadequate social welfare and social stigma against single mothers have forced thousands of women to give up their children. Regulations state that children must be sent to carefully profiled families in sizeable cities, so that they can be naturally aware of other adoptive children and validate their identity through people of the same race. Beesley, however, had to deal with being the only Asian kid in town while supporting a schizophrenic adoptive mother.

Moreover, tales, many tragic, of this peculiar form of separation are not unknown, but the fact that South Korea, now one of the world’s emerging economies, continues to be a top “baby exporter” remains rather hushed. Organizations such as GOAL (Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link), which aids Korean adoptees returning from abroad and supported the film, work to spotlight this overlooked portion of the Korean Diaspora.

Though past misfortunes that forever altered the lives of Noh, Beesley, Chu and countless others cannot be undone, raising awareness can prevent future tragedies and promote healthy adoption policies. Noh has formed a support group for mothers who gave up children for adoption while Chu, who has been a Seoul resident for years now, takes part in organizing discussion panels for adoptees.

Chu, who met with The Korea Times shortly before Chuseok, said she was planning on spending the holidays, as always, with her brothers. “They don’t speak English and my Korean is inadequate but we get along,” she said. Similarly, Noh keeps in touch with her son through Skype, though they also have difficulty communicating. Regardless, it’s a portrait of a family, rather peculiar and still in the making.

“Resilience” recently picked up the prize for best documentary at the Asian Pacific American Film Festival in Washington D.C. and has been invited to the San Diego Asian Film Festival in October and Vancouver Asian Film Festival in November. Chu is currently working on documentaries that spotlight other under-represented members of society.

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