Film Review: Approved For Adoption

A true-life remembrance of things past&#8212;from Korea to Belgium&#8212;is spun out in effective cartoon and less-so live-action form. <br /> &#160;

A decidedly different autobiographical documentary is proposed by the writing-directing team of Jung Henin and Laurent Boileau, based on Henin's graphic novel of remembrance. A Korean orphan, Henin was adopted in 1971 by a Belgian family with four children of their own and raised in Europe. His entire life, it would seem, has been a matter of not fitting in, understandable as the sole Asian in a white family and town and, more intriguingly, when he goes back to visit Korea as an adult. This severe sense of displacement and identity confusion manifested itself in various forms of adolescent misbehavior, cheating at school, leaving home and totally rejecting all other Korean orphans in his vicinity, a result of the "chic" popularity of adoption at the time, when some 200,000 orphans found new foreign homes. There's even an episode wherein he suddenly decides to identify as Japanese, even though that race has been the age-old historical foe of Korea.

Using a motley mix of often charming animation and live action which includes actual home footage of Jung as a child, as well as the present time (as that bemused grown-up visiting the "homeland"), Approved for Adoption strives for a narrative and emotional complexity it sometimes achieves. The animated sequences are by far the strongest portion of the film, and one almost wishes they had been used exclusively. The drawing is distinctive and nicely detailed, possessing moments of real beauty, like the fields of wheat which magically part as characters walk through them. Another moment, showing Jung sleeping in the back seat of the family car, with the streetlights glancing over his recumbent form, has a nostalgically rare universality to it. The filmmakers rather skip over Jung's Korea visit, which does not possess the resonance it should have here and seems highly negligible. The live sections begin to seem more and more unnecessary distractions, as does a plethora of fantasy flights, like those depicting Jung's various nightmares, which are like self-conscious aesthetic flourishes more than anything truly germane to the story.

What does admirably come alive through the cartoon portions is the vivid complexity of family life, with ravening sibling tensions and some pretty serious corporal punishments (redolent of a less parent-child tolerant, non-"negotiable" time than now). Jung's Belgian caretakers were anything but the ideal, Disney-fied family unit. They are strongly and admirably portrayed as the real, flawed people they undoubtedly were, and his mother in particular emerges as a quite interesting, harried and stern, yet truly loving personality.