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Borshay’s Acclaimed Docs Air
by David L. Brown
Being adopted is tough enough, but the filmmaker also discovered her 'birth' identity was switched - and then Borshay investigated it all in a film
Exactly a year ago, I was writing an article for CineSource about the four local docs included in last season's prestigious P.O.V. series on PBS. This season, there are only two local docs included in the series - but both are directed by the same local filmmaker, Deann Borshay Liem.
"First Person Plural" (encore presentation on PBS on Tuesday, August 10 at 10 p.m.) and "In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee" (airing Tuesday, September 14 at 10 pm) are companion films that each explore Deann's fascinating and moving search for her heritage as an adopted Korean-American whose identity was switched with another Korean orphan's. Both films are superbly crafted and heartfelt personal documentaries; indeed, they are among the most compelling I've ever seen on family and identity.
Previously, Deann has served as co-executive producer for Spencer Nakasako's Emmy-winning documentary, "A.K.A. Don Bonus," and Nakasako's "Kelly Loves Tony." She was also the executive director of NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association). "First Person Plural," completed a decade ago, is her extremely accomplished directorial debut.
Perhaps not that amazing, considering her facility with film, but this snap, shot on the day she arrived in the United States, captures the drama of both Deann Borshay Liem and her new mom. photo: courtesy D. Borshay Liem
It explores her life as an adoptee in the Bay Area, and her own complicated identity as she discovers that she "has been trespassing in another person's life." Although her memories of her Korean birth family and early childhood nearly disappeared as she got on with life in California, recurring dreams finally forced her to investigate. She learns in a letter from her Korean brother that she is, in fact, not Cha Jung Hee, the Korean orphan she and her adopted family thought she was. Her identity had been switched by a social worker at the orphanage where she was sent by her birth family. When she found that her Korean mother and family were very much alive, she was compelled as a human to visit them but as an artist to begin videotaping.
Courageously deciding to unite her biological and adoptive parents, Deann embarked on a remarkable journey of personal discovery, cultural differences and the reconciliation of the two identities. The full-scale documentary was born when her adoptive parents agreed, with trepidation, to join her for the trip to Korea. Accompanied by veteran local cameraman, Michael Chin, the first-time director catalyzed a revelatory reunion between the two families.
Both her birth mother and brother were wracked by guilt, and talked openly about it. The mother confessed, "My heart aches ... the pain was indescribable" The older brother explained, "We were hard-pressed financially. By sending her away, we thought she might have better opportunities. She could get an education. We thought it would be better than living with us. It's not that they were abandoned. They were sent for a better life. [Now] she is filled with endless heartache. We are not very proud of what happened."
"The trip was hard for everyone," Deann said. "It was extremely emotional during the entire visit. There were many tears. I guess a part of me was hoping my birth mother would try to reclaim me as her daughter but she asked instead that I honor the love and commitment of my adoptive mother." Chin's camera captures the painful confusion on Deann's face.
Anchoring both films is a wealth of home movies well-shot by her adopted dad, Arnold Borshay (including the visibly frightened 8-year-old Deann arriving in San Francisco, wearing the other girl's too-large shoes) and Deann's eloquent first person narration, much of it spoken on camera. Yet, the adopted family members and the Borshays, to their credit, participate in the interviews, lovingly and openly, despite the often-sensitive subject matter. "They almost seemed to be waiting for the subject of my Korean family finally to be discussed," Deann noted.
In a moving exchange, Deann asks her adopted mother why she never asked about her daughter's Korean family and childhood. Mrs. Borshay hesitated, then responded: "Maybe I was afraid you'd tell me. It was quite scary. I was afraid of losing you." Her dad remarks that "communication is a two-way street. You never brought up the subject." Deann speaks in voice-over to a growing sadness and distance from her adoptive parents: "As a child I accepted them as my parents, because I needed them for survival. But, as an adult, I think that I haven't accepted them as my parents. That's part of the distance that I've been feeling with them for a lot of years... A lot of the sadness had to do with loss. I was never able to mourn what I had lost with my American parents."
One of many strengths of "First Person Plural" is its artful documentation of honest and painful discussions and the processing by Deann and both her families. After acknowledging her confusion and need to continue sorting out the multi -family and -identity issues, Deann finally tells her adopted mother, Alveen Borshay, "You're my real mother." Because the audience has shared both women's struggles to deal with this terrible dilemma, their tearful hug is very moving.
The Autobiographical Documentary is a very difficult form, in general, but for Borshay, shown here behind an image of her younger self, it involved unravelling literally three distinct identities. photo: courtesy D. Borshay Liem
Deann chose illustrious collaborators whose work truly shines: editor/co-writer Vivien Hillgrove; DP Michael Chin; and composer Mark Adler, whose beautiful music complements and enhances the intensity of the film. Over eight years after "First Person Plural" aired to great acclaim on P.O.V., Deann continued her journey of discovery in the follow-up film, "In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee." This film is a bit more lyrical but no less powerful in its exploration of memory and identity. Among her adoption documents, Deann discovered a piece of tracing paper with a cut-out of a child's feet. Beginning with this image in back-light, the documentary sets the stage for Deann's tenacious detective work and quest to find the real Cha Jung Hee.
"I wish I could call this memory, my memory. I wish I had a picture for all the lost moments of the past so I could string them together in one unbroken history," Deann articulates in voice-over. "Instead, I invent stories about what might have been, inserting myself in spaces I never occupied." Her journey brings her to the orphanage where Deann (then Ok Chin) was switched Cha Jung Hee. In addition to meeting dozens of women named Cha Jung Hee, she also locates and interviews the orphanage social worker, Hyo-sun Park, who made the switch in 1965, sending Deann to California as Cha Jung Hee.
Even though she perpetrated a deception on the Borshays and their adopted daughter, Park claims to have acted honorably, as everyone in the film does, in the perceived best interests of the orphans. Park explains that Cha Jung Hee's father arrived at the orphanage and reclaimed his daughter days before she was scheduled to be sent to California to the Borshays. So, Park simply sent Deann (Ok Chin) in her place, writing Cha Jung Hee on the back of Ok Chin's photo.
"The switch with Cha Jung Hee was born out of a desire to save yet another child from poverty and at the same time, it was a business transaction," Deann explains. Park offers a variation of Deann's brother's justification: "the switch was done out of a belief that you would be happy. I'm sorry its still haunting you."
One of several very dramatic scenes in Deann's quest is her discovery of her complete adoption file with her picture labeled Cha Jung Hee. Another powerful scene is her birth mother's visit to the Bay Area when, for the first time, "an unexpected anger welled up" in Deann. She "realized there was a mutual betrayal - she'd given me up for adoption and I'd betrayed my entire family by forgetting them." By phone, Deann said many adoptees, after seeing the movie asked why she wasn't angry with her birth mother for giving her up. That anger remained submerged in Deann's consciousness until her birth mother's visit to the Bay Area triggered it.
One of several striking stylistic devices Deann uses throughout the film is a horizontally sliced photo of Cha Jung Hee with interchangeable segments that can be substituted with segmented images of Ok Chin (Deann). Another is a large plexiglass wall to which Deann attaches various transparencies of young Cha Jung Hee, herself, and the top candidates to be the real Cha Jung Hee.
According to Deann, the most rewarding part of making "In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee" was meeting dozens of Cha Jung Hees and learning what her life in Korea might have been like if her family hadn't given her up. In the first half of the film, there are several strong scenes of the Korean War, war refugees and orphans. Then, as the search for Cha Jung Hee intensifies (there were 101 in the Korean phone book alone, and police helped her locate many more), we see rich, beautifully-crafted scenes of life in contemporary Korea that conclude with a memorable "Burning Man-style" torching of a wooden structure. The flames resonated for me as a symbol of forsaking and forgetting the painful past. Todd Boekelheide's music is extremely effective here, and throughout.
Several Cha Jung Hees who Deann met were the right age (early 50s) but only one had been rescued from an orphanage as a girl by her father. At long last, Deann had found the woman whose identity she had been given 45 years ago. Deann offered to return the red shoes: Cha Jung Hee declined to accept them, as they would remind her of the painful past. Deann reflects on this: "I thought giving the shoes back would free me from the identity they symbolized, but I realized they didn't belong to her; they belonged to me."
Concluding the film is the recurrent and resonant metaphor of shoes as a symbol of identity. In the ending I don't want to disclose, the visuals blend perfectly with her exquisite voice-over to convey a painfully split identity finally made whole. The writing, the videography, editing, and storytelling, as well as the courage and integrity of the storyteller/ filmmaker, all combine with Adler's music to make a masterful and cathartic documentary, a near-perfect companion to, and completion of, the journey begun in "First Person Plural."
Co-produced by Charlotte Lagarde, "In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee" had great sound design by Jim LeBrecht and mix by Dan Olmsted.
David L. Brown is an Emmy award-winning docmaker, see
Posted on Aug 09, 2010 - 06:19 PM