Search for identity: Deann Borshay Liem searches for the Korean girl whose name she was given in her latest documentary.

Borshay Liem's Double Exposure of Korean Adoptions

Michael Fox March 12, 2010

Deann Borshay Liem’s terrific 1999 documentary First Person Plural recounted her experience as an orphaned Korean adoptee raised by a Caucasian family in an East Bay suburb. Only she wasn’t an orphan, and the second half of the film is devoted to locating and meeting her birth mother and siblings. A decade later, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee finds Liem revisiting her adoption and identity from another, equally compelling perspective. The Korean documents identified her as Cha Jung Hee, but eight-year-old Deann (as her adoptive parents christened her) knew that wasn’t her name. All these years later, the filmmaker determines to get to the bottom of the mystery, and find the person for whom she was substituted. Scheduled to air nationally on PBS’s “P.O.V.” in September, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee has its world premiere in the "28th San Francisco International Asian America Film Festival": this Friday, March 12 at 6:45 at the Clay Theatre, with additional screenings Saturday, March 13 in Berkeley (Pacific Film Archive) and Sunday, March 21 in San Jose (Camera Cinemas).

SF360: This is a sequel, in a manner of speaking, which is not often attempted by documentary makers. What are the advantages of tackling the same subject, and some of the same material?

Deann Borshay Liem: That’s a good question. (Laughs.) Were there any? The issue of Cha Jung Hee and this mistaken identity is something that’s nagged at me pretty much all my life, and I think would have nagged at me to my grave. Revisiting it now, having had the opportunity to process a lot of emotional issues around my adoption and being able to look at things a little more evenly, was helpful. And it was clearly not as much of an emotional journey as making First Person Plural. I had enough distance to be able to look at the documents, and the bureaucratic deceptions and lies, with a bit more clarity this time around.

SF360: Is there a research advantage, as opposed to a project that you start from scratch?

Borshay Liem: Oh, sure. A good part of the material I had revisited before, so that was much easier. I’ve been collecting archival footage because I’m also making a film about the Korean War [Memory of a Forgotten War], and looking at materials related to orphans and mascots and children and separated families. I realized that the process of looking deeply at the war and this material is partly bringing that history into myself. I didn’t grow up with it; it wasn’t a part of me. Now I’m making it a part of me. And this film is part of that process. But making a personal film, boy, it’s just so challenging. (Laughs.)

SF360: I gather you mean emotionally.

Borshay Liem: When you’re making a film where you put yourself in it, and you’re undergoing a journey that’s a central part of the narrative arc, then you have to be willing to be affected by what you’re experiencing. When I set out to make the film, I knew that it was going to be a journey. But I thought it was going to be much more simple, that I would meet [the real Cha Jung Hee], and I didn’t think it was going to be complicated to meet her, naively. And there were issues I hadn’t really worked through. It ended up being less about Cha Jung Hee as a person, but having her identity prevented me in many ways from fully embracing my life in the U.S. And this feeling that I never really had permission—because I was supposed to be this other person—to embrace my adopted family, embrace being an American and having a sense of permanence, that this is my home and this is where I belong. That I didn’t really take someone else’s place; I’m here and it’s me that’s here. Processing that as part of the editing and writing took a really long time, and was the most challenging thing.

SF360: Give us a little insight into your approach to the narration.

Borshay Liem: I worked with this fantastic editor, Vivien Hillgrove, who helped provide the objectivity that I sometimes lacked. We would edit together and come up with lines together. Or she would say, ‘This section needs something that has this feeling,’ and I would go home and write it and record it, trying to figure out the right expression of the interior landscape. It was really about expressing what’s been in me for decades and how to communicate that, both through pictures and the narration. I would spend days at a time working in my basement, writing and recording the narration by myself and then cutting it in, and then I’d meet up with Viv and we’d look at it together and make changes. It was really slow. I’d spend three days writing three pages, and coming out with one line.

SF360: How about the tone of your voice, and determining the right distance and temperature?

Borshay Liem: The first rough cut, because it incorporated other adoptee stories and more objective history, [my] narration was more distant and more objective. But when I took out the other stories and focused on the Cha Jung Hee story arc, I started recording what felt natural to me. The tone is just my voice, and literally I just sit in my basement and just write and record the lines.

SF360: Did you watch many other first-person docs to check out various narrations?

Borshay Liem: No. When I was making First Person Plural, I watched every single first-person documentary out in the field at that time. (Laughs.) This time around, I just recorded what felt right to me. But it did take a while. We didn’t have it quite right in the first rough cut or the second rough cut. Toward the end, when I just let myself be alone and record myself, it worked out OK. (Laughs.)

SF360: Did you have someone in mind that you were speaking to?

Borshay Liem: No, I’m just sort of talking to myself.

SF360: So you get into a zone?

Borshay Liem. Yeah, it’s early in the morning usually, when it’s dark outside still, and it’s real quiet in my basement and I just sit in the dark. (Laughs.) No, near dark.

SF360: What are the disadvantages of making a second film on the same general subject?
Borshay Liem: Figuring out how to create something that’s different for people who might have seen First Person Plural, and that explains enough of the backstory so someone who hasn’t would understand this film. In terms of funding, originally I had intended to use the personal narrative, the search for Cha Jung Hee, as a journey to also explore the international adoptions from Korea. I interviewed a lot of adoptees from Sweden and France and Switzerland and Italy. They’re all Korean, but acculturated into their respective societies and cultures. I decided to make it two separate projects. It’s hard raising money for a personal film because it’s a question of whether it has any universal appeal or whether it’s too personal.

SF360: For my money, everyone deals with an identity issue, whether they’re adopted or not.

Borshay Liem: All of us question who we are at some point. Not in exactly this manner, but we do question. And I think all of us wonder what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes, to live someone else’s life.

SF360: Tell us about the online component.

Borshay Liem: We participated in the BAVC Producers Institute [for New Technologies], and we developed a special networking site for adoptees. It hasn’t been launched yet, but I’m working on it. Essentially, it would be a specially defined, somewhat Facebook-type of site. Initially, the idea would be to connect up the Korean adoptees from all over the world so that they can find each other. It would have a geographical search capability, so if you’re in Sweden and want to find out how many others in Sweden were adopted from the same orphanage in Korea, or the number of adoptees that have found their birth families in the same town, you could have the ability to do that. Then the idea is to expand that to adoptees of any background–Chinese, Guatemalan, domestic, etc.

SF360: I thought part of the concept was that adoptes could upload their own stories.

Borshay Liem: That’s part of it, too. Adoptees would be able to create their own profiles, and put up their own photo albums of their families, whether it was adopted family or birth family. They’d be able to upload videos and personal stories, in video or in written form, and share it with other people. The stories of adoptees, every single story is an amazing story, and there are commonalities that we all share but quite a lot of difference. Part of the whole thing is to allow people to connect with each other through storytelling. For adoptees to hear other experiences is so affirming. I grew up thinking that I was the only Korean person in Fremont, California, in a white family, and thought I was such an aberration. For an adoptee growing up in a small town in some rural area in Sweden, or some place in Minnesota, the only Asian in a white family, it’s using the Internet as a way of creating this global community, and to share those stories with one another.

SF360: The television audience in one night will dwarf your entire festival-circuit audience. So what’s the importance of the SFIAAFF world premiere?

Borshay Liem: This film is really made for a bigger screen. It’s visually intriguing, and there’s detail that may be lost on a smaller format. Photographs, the letters, and a lot of the kind of dreamy Super-8 sequences. And I think the story as a whole will do better in a theatrical setting. But I’m really thrilled to be on P.O.V., and already wonderful things are planned for the broadcast.

SF360: As long as you mentioned the visuals, the first scene is a reenactment that’s shot as if it’s an old home movie. I loved that you began your film, which ultimately documents a deception, with a deception.

Borshay Liem: Yes, the tracing of the feet is reenacted. In my adoption documents was this tissue of a foot outline. It always intrigued me. How is it possible that my mother got this outline of this girl’s foot? And based on that she bought shoes. And these are the shoes I’ve been obsessed with my whole life. (Laughs.) So yes, it does open with my imagination of how that story took place.

The reenactment was in keeping with the other visual material throughout the film. It’s an interpretation of my past and a reconstruction in my mind, visually, of my past. I’ve struggled with the whole issue of point of view in my life, and that’s part of the reason I’ve put this film and First Person Plural out there. Growing up, I was surrounded by documents and photographs and my father’s home movies that constructed a reality for me—a reality of what I should be and who I should be. If you look at my father’s home movies, he sees me as this happy, assimilated kid. No history, no pain, no background. It didn’t matter where I came from; I was born the minute I got off the plane. My reinterpretation of his images, my reinterpretation of the documents, my own interpretation if my mother’s stories of what she told me—that’s all my point of view. And people should be aware that it’s my point of view. It is a story. I feel like telling this story and making this film is in part reinventing myself as the person I am, kind of stepping into myself.