Jung was 5 years old, alone and wandering along a South Korean street when a policeman came across him. The Western world awaited; the boy would be among more than 200,000 Korean children adopted in the aftermath of the Korean War. In May 1971, a Belgian family brought Jung Henin home.
“It was like getting a new car,” recalls Jung, describing how his adoptive parents might have considered the addition, “but it needed more looking after.”
Known professionally simply as Jung, the illustrator and graphic novelist recounts that childhood in Approved for Adoption, a lovely, low-key film showing Friday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
The French-language movie blends hand-drawn and computer-generated animation, but that doesn’t mean it is aimed at children. Jung and co-director Laurent Boileau piece together a mosaic of vignettes — using Super 8 home movies, newsreels and modern-day liveaction footage — for a meditation on themes of identity and belonging.
William Coryn provides the voiceover narration of adult Jung reminiscing about his youth while searching through contemporary Korea for information about past. Our point of view does not stray from Jung. Because the Henins already have four children when they adopt him, his childhood acclimation often proves chaotic.
Jung undergoes the requisite rites of passage, from mild mischief to young crushes (including one on the Henins’ oldest daughter), while his memory of Korean culture gradually fades.
Yet he still feels like a tourist in his home. Even Jung’s new grandmother tends to discount him.
“I keep forgetting about your little Asian,” she tells the Henins (voiced by Jean-Luc Couchard and Christelle Cornil). Jung’s mother gives mixed signals. She is nurturing but also not above exploiting her adopted son’s “otherness” when she is angry. Jung’s own free-floating anger ekes out in various ways. He steals, defies his parents and seeks refuge in his innate gifts as an artist.
Jung’s relationship to Korea is equally complex. He is both drawn to and embarrassed by other Koreans. And he recognizes that there are advantages to knowing nothing about his biological parents — especially for someone with an imagination as fertile as Jung — since “they can be just the way you like.”
Split identities abound in Approved for Adoption, from the 38th Parallel that separates North and South Koreas to Jung’s internalized divisions between East and West. The film’s tone is melancholy and the pace leisurely, and it manages to capture the experience of being an adopted child while tapping into more universal feelings.
It’s a small but absorbing movie and more proof that the rewards of animation go far beyond talking dogs and selling toys.