Judge Michael Nazarewycz found himself—wait for it—drawn to this film.
"Not knowing your biological parents has an upside. They can be just the way you like."
I'm always looking for cinematic firsts. I don't mean things like "the first color film" or "the first film directed by X"; I mean things that are cinematic firsts for me as a film fan. For example, last year I had several firsts, including my first theatrical screening where I was the only person in the theater (The Purge) and my first IMAX 3D experience (Iron Man 3). I don't go looking for these firsts—they usually happen in the natural course of watching movies, and I usually only realize they are firsts during or after they happen. Not this time. This time I consciously made the decision to review this film because it would be my first animated documentary…and foreign, no less.
Facts of the Case
As one of countless children displaced by the Korean War, Jung (pronounced "young"), at age five, found himself adopted by Belgian parents. One day he was an only child with a father whose identity was unknown and a mother whose whereabouts were unknown, and the next day he was living in another country with two new parents and four instant siblings. None of them looked like him.
Jung quickly grows and soon forgets most of his young Korean life, but that doesn't leave him immune to conflict within himself and with others. Internally, he is still a kid without a country. He can't go back from where he came, and where he is now, despite unconditional acceptance from his adopted family (except maybe Grandma), will never truly be home. He is forever the misfit. Externally, he faces the racism you might expect a "honey-skinned" kid to get from a lily-white population. As Jung moves into his teens, a time in anyone's life that has enough hormonally-charged emotional drama to begin with, he struggles with his lot, lashes out against one and all, suffers the consequences for that, and wonders what life can offer him.
Approved for Adoption is an absolute delight and quite a surprise. What I thought would be something of a traditional immigrant's tale told in a unique format instead is part immigrant tale and part coming-of-age story, beautifully blending two visual media.
Using Jung's graphic novel as its source, the artist and his co-writer/co-director Laurent Boileau begin the immigrant tale with a blend of genuine Newsreel-like footage, animation, and Jung's adopted family's Super-8 home movies. It's all remarkably seamless, particularly the transitions from Super-8 to animation and back again. The integration of the live-action footage adds a heavy weight of authenticity where the story needs it most, so as to remind viewers that this is more than a cartoon—that it actually happened. The Super-8 footage is also notable for how it documents the warm, loving environment that the refugee child was brought home to.
The rest of the film, which shifts any live footage-focus to Jung's present-day return to Korea to search for his origins, documents the artist's life the way we probably remember our own: as a collection of moments that have helped shape us to become who we are today. He remembers some very endearing and personal positive moments (his first kiss is one for the ages), but he also remembers many darker moments, from that grandmother with a racist streak to a teacher and students with the same, and from his internal conflict when his parents adopt another Korean child to his ever-growing rebellion (and the consequences of those rebellious actions).
Jung also covers the genesis of his interest in art, and a work this introspective is usually sure to have some bias. However, based on what is presented in the film, Jung's light shines warm and harsh on whoever deserves it—including himself.
The animation works incredibly well—far better than I expected. Jung's artistic style isn't cartoonish at all, and because the imagery (or at least the sketches that act as the computer animation's source) comes from Jung's hand, there is always a sense of intimacy that a video or film presentation simply couldn't capture or recreate.
The end of the film will have you in tears. I never expected to be moved by this story.
(NOTE: One of the genres listed is "Family," but there is a brief scene where Jung fantasizes about his ballet teacher. Through his drawings and animation, she appears topless.)
Presented in 1.78:1/1080p HD widescreen, Cinedigm's Approved for Adoption (Blu-ray) is superb. The clarity allows the viewer to not simply watch, but experience the rich texture of Jung's artwork via very skilled computer animators. This is truly art in motion. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track has very light work to do, and does so with fine clarity.
Bonus features are fronted by a fantastic 30-minute making of that is not only insightful, it is refreshingly devoid of that that marketing sheen so many of these types of extras tend to have. It coves technical aspects, delves into Jung's psyche, and looks at some of the unique challenges the filmmakers faced in making a film with such a unique structure. Also included is a standard def DVD copy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The story "ends" with Jung around his late teens, with a few bits of present-day Jung at age 44. What happened in the 25-year gap? I understand this is a story about his childhood, but other than his adult pursuits of his immigration documentation, there is no epilogue about the fate of his parents or siblings.
There are also a couple of live-action dramatizations cut into the film that do not work at all. When the family home movies are interwoven into the film, there is a very nice flow to them. And Jung's modern-day visit to Korea feels fine too. The dramatizations, though, are abrupt and clunky and not a good fit.
I won't say that telling Approved for Adoption in a medium most associated with children is the only way this story could be told, but in the hands of Jung it's the best way.
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