Sunday, February 2, 2014


One of the results of the Korean war was that an estimated 200,000 Korean children were orphaned.  One such boy was Jung, who lived on the street before being taken to an orphanage by a friendly policeman. It was his great fortune to be adopted by a friendly Belgium family. As he recalls in the lovely documentary Approved for Adoption,  he suddenly had more toys than he'd ever imagined, and soon forgot how to speak his native language. True, he  tires of being called "the little Asian," and when the family adopts a little Korean girl a few years later, he grows jealous. "I'm the Asian in this family," he yells. Still, all seems well until Jung's teen years, when he grows frustrated by his lack of an identity.

Jung developed an interest in drawing, which gave him a way to escape and hide from his problems. He created a "graphic novel" called  Skin Color: Honey which inspired this documentary. The film, co-directed by Jung and Laurent Boileau, is presented in beautiful animated sequences, but also uses some home movies, including a stirring clip of his being adopted and brought home, and also new footage of Jung, now in his 40s, returning to Korea for the first time.

The boy Jung is a rascal. He nearly puts out a younger sibling's eye with a childish prank, and even though he's a good boy, he develops a penchant for stealing and cheating. The punishments he faces are brutal, but there's always the sense that the Belgium family adores him. When he's picked up at the orphanage, his new sisters want to name him "Igor," and treat him like a new pet; they immediately argue over whose room he will sleep in.  He develops a harmless crush on his oldest stepsister, but can't seem to stay on the good side of his stepmother. She spanks him constantly.  When he becomes too fast for her to catch, she invests in a sort of bullwhip to spank him at long range. This sounds horrible, but it's actually one of the funnier scenes in the film.

Jung's teen years are marked by his discovery of the Japanese culture. He can't find anything in his Korean background that can compare with Astro Boy, or Samurai films. He imagines himself a karate legend, and ignores his brothers who tell him vehemently that he's not Japanese. He meets a nice Korean girl who likes his drawings. Through her, he meets a real Korean family. He's moved by their sweetness, but he's still conflicted. A squabble at home results in his leaving. Eventually, Jung gets sick from eating too much hot sauce, and it's his stepmother who comes to his rescue.

Watching Approved for Adoption, I was reminded of incidents from my own childhood, which did not involve adoption, but wasn't without conflicts. I remember cousins who were Puerto Rican but told schoolmates they were Italian, and I think all kids might wonder what it would be like to have different parents. Little Jung imagines his real mother as a Korean beauty, and for some reason imagines his biological father was Irish and played the bag pipes. The beauty of the movie is that even I, who had a safe and happy American childhood, experienced the same reveries and fantasies of this orphaned Korean boy. But I also felt for his adopted parents, who deeply cared for him, and I liked how his step-siblings included him in their adventures.  The movie has a poetic and stirring denouement, when Jung finally acknowledges that this Belgium family was his real family. There's a particularly moving moment between him and his step-mother, when he learns she has very special place in her heart for him.

The film, although elegant and comic, has a thread of melancholy through it, as if there is a hole in Jung's heart that can never be mended. He mentions that he knew many adopted Koreans who  came to bad ends. Indeed the little girl adopted by his own family was dead by 25.  He recounts these stats with a deadpan expression, and suggests his hot sauce disaster was his own attempt to end it all. He's survived so far, through his intelligence, his toughness, his love for art, and perhaps, the need to tell his story.

Approved for Adoption was made in 2012, and has worked its way slowly around the world. It came to my area for a single showing. There were only two of us in the audience. By the end, we were both weeping.

I had a feeling Run & Jump would be a charmer from its opening scene, where a little girl was decorating a room for a party. She'd clipped the faces out of some family photos and was pasting them onto her dolls, and then setting the dolls up in a family tableau. The girl was wearing a hood with ears, and promptly told the party guests that she was a squirrel. She would go on to appear in various animal suits throughout the movie: a penguin, a bear of some kind, even a pig. The party, however, is not a particularly happy occasion: it's to welcome home her dad, who is recovering from a stroke and doesn't seem to be his old self. This is typical of Run & Jump, where humor and sadness seem to go hand in hand. 

Conor was only 38 when he had his stroke, and his quick recovery has made him a bit of a case study, compounded by an American doctor who moves in with the family to film Conor's adjustment. The doctor is a shy sort,  but he develops a friendship with Conor's wife, and even befriends Conor's kids. None of this  goes over well with Conor's parents, who are highly suspicious of the American doctor. The culture clash is evident when Conor's father grills the doctor on his mission. "How much do you get paid for this sort of thing?" he asks, not hiding his derision.  Meanwhile, Conor isn't interested in much besides watching animal shows on television. He likes the animals because they don't demand much from him. 

Edward MacLiam is moving as Conor, pensive one moment, outraged the next. I like that he invents a "spand," a wooden spoon shaped like a hand which he hopes to use to pet animals. Maxine Peake is excellent as Venitia, Connor's fiery wife. She's a fun-loving, sexy woman who is faced with the unexpected task of holding the family together as her husband recedes into someone barely recognizable. As Doctor Ted Fielding, Will Forte shows that the serious side he displayed in Nebraska wasn't a fluke. His character here is thinly written, but Forte adds gravitas and warmth. 

Run & Jump is the first feature from writer/director Steph Green. The film's excellent first half is somewhat under-served by a meandering final act and a slightly unsatisfying ending, but there's plenty of gorgeous footage of County Kerry, Ireland, Forte and Peake are great together, and there's a little girl dressed as a penguin.  Sometimes that's all I need from a movie.

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