Some animation films try different things outside the usual territory for young audiences, and little Belgian animation feature film “Approved for Adoption”, which was released as “Couleur de peau: Miel” in Europe, is one of such works. It is not only about a sad, shameful fact in the modern South Korean history but also about an outsider who has been always conscious of his status since the first day in his new country, and its engaging mix of animation and autobiography generates genuine moments of deep emotions while he looks back on his childhood and adolescence years as a grown man still feeling awkward between two countries either of which he has never entirely belonged to.
When he was around 5, Jung Henin, the co-director of this film who also wrote the autobiographic graphic novel adapted by him and his co-director Laurent Boileau, was a homeless kid in South Korea during the 1970s. His father was unknown to him, and he did not remember well his mother who abandoned him, and he is not even sure about whether his recorded Korean name, “Jun Jung-sik”, was his real name at birth. With no document to tell more about him or his mother, Jung only speculates that he was an illegitimate child, which was a hefty social stigma to any South Korean woman during that time(and it still is, by the way).
Since the Korean War, around 200,000 South Korean children were sent to US, Canada, Europe, and Australia for adoption, and Jung was one of those kids. After he was taken to an orphanage by a kind policeman who noticed Jung on the street, he was adopted by a Belgian couple through the Holt International Children’s Services, and Jung dryly tells us that it was a fancy trend to adopt Asian orphans during that time in Belgium. In fact, he was not the only Asian kid in his adoptive parents’ neighbourhood, and they adopted another South Korean orphan a few years later.
Jung’s adoptive parents are not that good enough to receive the Parents of the Year award, but they provided him a fairly nice home environment, and Jung’s new brothers and sisters got along well with him. While the main story is depicted through the lovely animation influenced by the simple but intimate hand-drawn style of Jung’s graphic novel, the movie also shows us the home video footage which was really shot during that period, and we see young Jung enjoying happy times with his new family. He surely felt awkward as a boy with different skin color(“Couleur de peau: Miel” means “Color of Skin: Honey” in English), but his new life was certainly far better than living the life of a social outcast in South Korea.
As growing up, Jung became more and more accustomed to his new home. He soon learned to speak French(and a bit of Flemish), and his original language was forgotten as the time went by. He became especially friendly with one of his new siblings, and, like any other boys, he began to be interested in girls. He was not very pleased about learning ballet instead of soccer due to his adoptive mother’s instruction, but he had good opportunities to see girls more closely during ballet lessons, so we have an innocently naughty sequence of his fanciful fantasy involved with one of them.
But there was always something empty inside his heart. He tried to distance himself from who he was, but that only made him unhappier while making him more troubled during his adolescent years. While he received some pretty harsh treatments from his parents and other adults, young Jung was not an innocent victim at all, and Jung is frank about the fact that he sometimes deserved the punishments for his rebellious deeds.
Fortunately for him, he developed his artistic talent while spending lots of time on imagining and drawing many things including his own biological mother. One of his schoolmates, who was also adopted from South Korea, recognized his talent while befriending him, and she later introduced him to a South Korean couple who kindly showed him a few things about the country he had nearly forgotten for years.
Jung finally visited South Korea in 2011, and we sometimes watch him looking around the streets and alleys of Seoul as following his story. Silent in his observation of the city and its people, he looks like an ordinary South Korean middle-aged man as surrounded by others, but he still feels like an outsider just like he has been in Belgium, and his gentle, reflective face looks sad and melancholic at times.
While he was lucky enough to go through his difficult years and then move onto to adult life with considerable artistic success, we are told later that some of the adoptive kids he knew were not as fortunate as him while struggling with their own identity matter. There was a dark point when he hit the bottom during his wandering years, but then he realized something important through a poignant moment between him and his adoptive mother, who dearly loved him more than expected despite all the imperfect sides of hers.
Like Marjan Satrapi’s “Persepolis”(2007), “Approved for Adoption” is one of good examples of how talented artist can be both personal and imaginative with animation genre. This is a simple but moving story told from an interesting viewpoint, and I was particularly touched by how Jung eventually arrived at the end of his long emotional journey. His somber conclusion on who he really is may sound simple, but we understand well how hard it has been for him to reach to that simple conclusion – and how much he feels better about himself in the end.