Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Plenty of filmmakers have drawn on their personal experiences and injected real-life details into their works. It follows the basic, seemingly safe approach in creative circles to ‘do what you know’, especially during the nascent stage of one’s career.
There’s always a danger, however, that the creator could end up being too close to the subject matter – how much closer can one get, right? – and lose the objectivity and distance required to tell a compelling story.
With A Brand New Life, Seoul-born French-Korean writer-director Ounie Lecomte strikes a pitch-perfect balance between re-enacting her own memories of being given up for adoption at a Catholic orphanage in the 1970s, and spinning a remarkable yarn.
Much of the story takes place within the confines of the all-girl orphanage, where children cling on to religion, the kindness of the nuns there, a regimented lifestyle and hope of being adopted one day. They even secretly seek out the wisdom of divination cards, for what scrap of good news may spring forth.
While it may not be as grim as how some dramatic films would have portrayed such situations, it is a form of purgatory for the protagonist Jinhee, the strong-willed nine-year-old apparent proxy for Lecomte.
In deep denial after her father abandons her abruptly, without so much as a goodbye, let alone an explanation, she rages within, appalled at the injustice of it all. Sullen, a frown etched on her face, she initially refuses to conform or befriend anyone.
“I’m not an orphan!” she cries out at her predicament, lashing out at those unfortunate enough to attempt to comfort, mock or break her spirit.
The performance required here is delivered in astonishing fashion by young Kim Sae-ron, presumably a newcomer, who inhabits her role with such conviction and steel that one cannot help but feel joyous bewilderment by the end of the picture.
A film with such a premise could have lapsed into sentimental mush; there are plenty of moments of misery that might have been milked (cue melodramatic soundtrack), with little remorse, in the wrong hands.
The fact that it doesn’t is a credit to Lecomte and her collaborators, among whom is novelist-director Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine), a producer here. It is also worth noting that Lecomte, a former fashion editor who once acted in an Olivier Assayas film, is making her feature debut with this measured, finely tuned film.
The audience is given ample opportunity to step in Jinhee’s shoes, and apart from her own troubles, we are able to observe the little dramas that play out at the orphanage.
An older girl, nearly a woman, is faced with the reality that she would at her age have trouble finding a family, gainful employment, and true love; meanwhile, a pubescent girl who takes pity on Jinhee shows her the ropes, and teaches her how she can enhance her ‘adoptability’ with boldness and guile.
Though there are simple acts of kindness, there is no preachy, sanctimonious message here, or any grand life-affirming triumphs here that one might expect from a more conventional director.
It is simply a story of survival, at an early, vulnerable age, told with sincerity and sensitivity. The film depicts how life goes on, no matter how traumatic its turns may be, and regardless of how unjust things appear.
Even the most ordinary and unlikely heroes can summon up grit and resilience, just to make it to another day. At its conclusion, one is overcome with genuine relief and elation, and prompted to make a little heartfelt wish that what happens after is marked by happier themes.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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