SAN FRANCISCO — Her passport said she was Cha Jung Hee, even though the eight-year-old girl knew that she was not. Yet, over the course of forty years Deann Borshay Liem came to forget that day she arrived in America in March 1966, a transnational adoptee from South Korea wearing a different little girl’s shoes. And, a few years ago, Liem decided to find the original Cha Jung Hee . . . and capture the entire journey in her newest documentary film, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee.
“Cha Jung Hee and I were fellow orphans at the Sun Duck Orphanage in South Korea,” she writes on her website, MuFilms.org. “She and I had nothing in common and I did not know her personally. And yet . . . . I was given [her] name, birth date and family history and told to keep the switch a secret.
“For years, Cha Jung Hee was, paradoxically, both a stranger and also my official identity — a persona unknown, but always present, defining my life.”
Deann Borshay Liem is no stranger to filmmaking: she served as the Executive Director for the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), formerly the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), the principal organization behind the wildly successful annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Borshay Liem also executive produced Spencer Nakasako’s Emmy Award-winning film, A.K.A. Don Bonus, and her directorial debut — First Person Plural — premiered at Sundance in 2000, and was included in the outstanding oeuvre of filmworks via PBS’s long-standing P.O.V. independent non-fiction films showcase. This is Borshay Liem’s second success as producer, writer, and director — and the film took home the Comcast Audience Award for Best Documentary Film at the 28th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival in March 2010 for its intimate address on the ethics and economics of transnational adoption, i.e. the business of adopting children from foreign nations, and sent shockwaves through the festival audience as well as the small – but tightly-knit – Korean adoptee community in the San Francisco Bay Area and abroad.
It’s a typical March twilight in Berkeley: wet. The gray sky was blurred by the heavy fog, which simply sat upon the trees and covered everything in sight with a fine mist. Outside UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive’s closed box office doors a line had already gathered down the steps and around the corner — a mass of legs huddling under mini-folding umbrellas and thumbing through slightly soggy festival pamphlets. Finally, at three minutes to showtime, a small dark figure with a trim pixie cut passed through the line and flashed a bright smile at the festival volunteers quietly ushering in ticketholders and media: Deann Borshay Liem arrived to a packed house, half of which were returning fans eager to see the unofficial sequel to First Person Plural, and later, a standing ovation.
After the Q&A session ended and the lights dimmed, a slim hostess quietly escorted the small entourage up the stairs at Oakland’s boisterous Ohgane restaurant (3915 Broadway), while downstairs the bar teamed with the loud, back-slapping laughter of club kids preparing for a Friday night out across the Bay. The spicy-sweet smell of cho kochujang, white rice, and roasted barley tea greeted the members of the Association of Korean Adoptees, San Francisco — also known informally as AKA SF. Borshay Liem neatly tucked in beside her co-producer, Charlotte Lagarde, as tables buzzed with new introductions and welcome cheers as the director and crew were greeted with a comfortable spread of Korean cuisine favorites. Among those attending were Jo Rankin, editor of Seeds from a Silent Tree, a ground-breaking anthology of works by Korean adoptees, and poet, Lee Herrick.
“Deann Borshay Liem’s powerful second film is part history, part search, and part triumph on the individual, cultural, and universal levels. It’s beautifully made and narrated,” said Herrick.
“I was taken with the story itself, as a new view on family, identity, and the winding complexities of Korean adoption. Borshay Liem is a creative and inspirational force of nature, and I am very glad she is making these films.”
AKA SF President, Holly Choon Hyang Bachman, was deeply moved by the film’s resonance with her own adoption:
“I think being a Korean adoptee myself, Deann’s film was very powerful, because it helped bring closure to me about how i should feel towards my adoptive parents as well as be more curious about my own adoption. (. . . ) Watching Deann’s film helped me become even more interested in my own birth search and it helped me become encouraged about possibly finding more information, or perhaps finding my own birth mother [and] birth family.”
Although Bachman was in awe with the many parallels between her family life, and that of Borshay Liem’s in the film, she cautions against the idea of a universal adoption story:
“I think it’s difficult to compare or think that every adoptee story is the same, because they are clearly not, but we do all share similar experiences and I do believe that at some point in all of our lives — we do have an innate desire to learn more about ourselves and where we came from — whether we want to admit it or not.”
Mary Choi, who is not a Korean adoptee, but blogs regularly on Kimchi Mama (http://kimchimamas.typepad.com) also attended the Berkeley screening during the film festival and agrees that it is a mistake to assume that every transnational adoption is equal.
“Parents who adopt from overseas, in my opinion, have an obligation to at least give the option to learn about their ethnicity and culture to the adopted child,” Choi said. “I think [parents] should be proactive about it, and not hinder their child if they want to know ‘where they came from.’”
In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee was produced by Mu Films and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), in association with CAAM, Katahdin Productions, and American Documentary/P.O.V., with major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee premieres on PBS tonight on P.O.V. at 10 p.m. for KQED and 11 p.m. for KVPT in Northern California. This month, P.O.V. also featured another award-winning documentary film, Wo Ai Ni Mommy (dir. Stephanie Wang-Breal), which also screened at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Please check for local listings for your nearest PBS-affiliate station for accurate showtimes and dates.
For more information about this film, and Deann Borshay Liem’s future filmworks, please visit: www.MuFilms.org
If you missed out on the P.O.V. presentation on Tuesday, September 14, then jump on to the live chat online on Wednesday, September 15, at 2:00 p.m. EST/11:00 a.m. PST at: http://www.pbs.org/pov/chajunghee/chat.php
You can purchase the film at: www.newday.com