Jung Henin used to imagine what his biological mother looked like. He would draw her again and again while dreaming about one day meeting her. He was born in South Korea in 1965 but, like many thousands of other Korean kids after the war, to a world without a family. That changed in 1971 when he was adopted by a Belgian family. His many drawings explore such themes as being uprooted, abandonment, identity, Asia and siblings. His film "Approved for Adoption," adapted from his book of the same name, is a film-memoir in animation, archival footage and clips from a recent trip back to South Korea.
In the movie you tell some of your memories yourself and some you tell through drawings.
Some memories are evoked in a very factual manner. For others, I needed to resort to graphic symbolism and metaphors in order to talk about more abstract things, like my biological mother. Whether it is in live action or animation, or even through the narration of the film, my autobiographical approach is sincere. I tell my story with my feelings, my emotions, but the animation allows me to take on this subjectivity. Even if the film is mostly animated, the form is hybrid. In the future, we will see more and more movies that mix genres. As a graphic artist, there is a real legitimacy in telling this autobiographical story within the framework of an animated film. The content has determined the form.
You have used drawing to create an imaginary world, but with this film you use it to tell the real — and sometimes harsh — story.
Imagination often joins reality. For example, I have chosen to evoke the void created by abandonment, which is a real pain, through dreamlike sequences concerning the absence of my biological mother. I have never known her. Another example is when my adoptive mother tells me that I am a rotten apple in a bucket of ripe ones. In reality, this scene is extremely violent. In the film, it is treated in a metaphorical way so that we can better feel the introspection of my character. Cinema allows us to put abstractions, or things that are hard to express, into words and images. In this sense, it is a medium that has a strong evocative power.
What effect are you hoping to create with your shifts between animation, archival footage and normal documentary style?
Animation helps me to recall my childhood. The purpose of the archival films is to anchor my personal story to the larger history of Korea. One has to know that more than 200,000 Korean children have been adopted throughout the world, and nearly half of them in the United States. And finally, the "live" part and the Super 8 family films are there to add authenticity. This is the story of my memories at a primary level, onto which I've grafted dreamlike sequences as internal reflections.
It’s a bit hard to find out who is actually the “bad guy” in the movie. All characters seem to have their own reasons for why they act like they do. What do you want to show with this movie?
When the course of life has been interrupted, one has to reconstruct it. Throughout my movie, I want to show that despite self-destruction, abandonment or any other great trauma, we are not irrevocably fated to tragedy. Self-reconstruction is possible. This is a film that wants to be positive, and it is in this sense that no character is either good or bad. They are just human beings with their qualities and their flaws.
Did you know the end of the story when you started drawing and filming, or did you come to a different conclusion during the process?
While directing this film, I did not know how to end the movie. Truthfully, the end of the movie had to be based on my first return trip to Korea. It turns out that nothing extraordinary happened over there, nothing which could have made a good ending. Let's say that this film has evolved with me. I saw my adoptive mother after a long period of not seeing her. That day, she looked at me as if I were the seventh wonder of the world. … It was the look of a mother who looks at her son. I wanted to evoke this moment at the end of the movie.
You say that you regularly receive very touching letters from readers thanking you your book "Approved For Adoption." Could you give us an example?
Yes, that is right, but I also receive letters from people who have seen the movie. I remember an adopted Korean who had offered my graphic novel to his adoptive father, with whom he was in conflict. After reading it, his father told him that he understood better now what his son had endured all those years. Since then, things have been better between them. At a preview screening of the film in France, this adopted Korean came with his father and all his family. I receive deeply moving testimonies regularly. I was not expecting such feedback.