Between Two Worlds

When Danish-Korean actress Karoline Sofia Lee returned to South Korea for the first time as a teenager nearly 20 years ago, she could have never anticipated how out of place she would feel in her very own country of birth.

By Paige Lim

"I had these expectations that as soon as I got out of the airport, I would feel at home. I would feel connected to the Korean people, but I didn't. I felt like a total stranger, like an alien so I was very disappointed," recalls Lee, who was given up for adoption at just five months old.

During her two trips there, she approached Holt Children's Services in South Korea — one of the largest international adoption agencies around the world — to find her birth mother, but the search eventually proved futile both times.

Lee's struggles with her identity are transposed to The Return, an unflinchingly honest and poignant debut feature from Danish-Korean director Malene Choi Jensen. Eligible for the Bright Future Award, the docufiction follows two Danish-Korean adoptees — played by actors Karoline Sofia Lee and Thomas Hwan, in fictionalised versions of themselves — who return to South Korea as adults for the first time to retrace their cultural roots. They meet at a guesthouse in Seoul run by actual non-governmental organisation KoRoot in Seoul, which provides shelter to Korean adoptees from around the world.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, over 200,000 Korean children have been put up for adoption and sent overseas, mainly to Europe and the United States. Once known for being one of largest exporters of infants worldwide, South Korea has since seen a significant drop in the number of international adoptions in recent years, amid governmental efforts to ratify the Hague Convention on adoption.

But for past Korean adoptees, the search for their biological family remains an arduous task yielding little chance of success, as made clear by the needless bureaucracy seen in The Return. As per Lee's real-life account, Karoline in the film routinely dismissed by Holt's officer-in-charge, who refuses to even verify birth records with the Incheon hospital listed on her adoption papers. 

There is no denying The Return's powerful authenticity and self-reflexivity, given how it is based on director Jensen's own experiences when she visited South Korea in 2007. Says Jensen, who was adopted at 11 months old: "I also went to a meeting at Holt to search for my family. I had a very bad meeting, and the lady told me that there was no new information. There was no conclusion to my trip — I was just confused on a higher level."

And while The Return's framework is arguably fiction, with scripted scenes and dialogue, after some time it becomes nearly impossible for the viewer to distinguish real-time reality from fantasy.

For instance, just like his character in the film, actor Hwan was visiting South Korea for the very first time since he was adopted by a Danish family at 11 months old. "I never searched for my birth parents. I always thought that it would be an impossible thing to do, that I would never be able to find anyone or anything," he says.

"So for me to make this film, just being there was enough to create something in myself to relate to everything we had to do in this movie. I didn’t need to search very deep because it was there all this time."

Adoptees may be united by the common thread of their dual identities, but nobody’s story is ever the same. The Return traverses the full, varied spectrum of human experience through a cast of stellar supporting characters, comprising real-life international adoptees who were staying at KoRoot during the team’s 15-day shoot and were roped into being a part of the film.

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In the film, a young man from the United States explains to Thomas the instantaneous affinity he felt with Korea on the first night he arrived two years ago, while an older woman recalls the complete emotional impassivity she felt upon meeting her birth father. Each of these individuals share their own intimate experiences of longing, regret and anguish with heartfelt candor, the conundrum of leaving behind one life for another and in reconciling two worlds that could not be more dissimilar. Yet the uncomfortable reality is that not every return to one’s origins pans out like your typical fairytale. 

Lee asserts: "Almost all the adoptees that I know who have been able to find their parents, they get frustrated. Yes, you get to see that you look like your mom, and that you have siblings, but they are strange people. So you have a lot more questions: 'What kind of relationship should I have with these people?' 'What do they expect of me?' I don't think it's that easy."

Jensen adds: "It's a journey that you can never really come back from. A part of you stays there."

Photo in header: Malene Choi Jensen