A BRAND NEW LIFE (2009)
Natural emotions rather than sensationalised set-ups drive this personal story of a young girl suddenly left at a rural orphanage by her father
The power of the filmmaker in allowing you to lean into the fabric of their lives is writ large in Ounie Lecomte's affecting and powerful debut.
An autobiographical view of Lecomte’s own journey from abandonment to eventual adoption has no need for a series of gargantuan awards season scenes. Having lived the often heart-breaking reality of the situation, Lecomte is acutely aware of the deep narrative value of her story.
We are the beneficiaries of such understated film-craft, providing us a deeply personal view of her childhood in terms that are deeply affecting and powerful.
Nine-year-old Jinhee is played brilliantly by Kim Sae-ron (The Man from Nowhere) in one of the stand-out child performances of Korean cinema. We first see her adorable smiling face happily bobbing along the streets of Seoul with a largely unframed father, later revealed as screen heavy-weight Sol Kyung-gu (Oasis, Peppermint Candy, Hope).
Her childish glee is suddenly rocked by being taken out of Seoul to a Catholic orphanage and left without so much as a farewell from her father.
Despite attempts to settle her, Jinhee is convinced her father will soon return, but she refuses to eat, cannot sleep and her anger grows as life continues in these strange new surroundings.
She bonds with the older Sook-hee (Park Do-yeon), who is focusing on her route out of the orphanage by courting foreign adopters with her broken English and butter-wouldn't-melt smile.
For Jinhee, the reality that her only way out is with another family becomes almost impossible to accept, as she becomes increasingly withdrawn and mute around potential new parents.
If this tale was pure fiction, it would be impossible to imagine this, such is the genuine emotional investment we feel in Jinhee’s fate. Even just viewing them in passing, the orphanage’s assemble of other inhabitants muster similar feeling. One such side character is Ye-shin, played by Go Ah-sung after her appearance in Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006).
For a film of such deep issues, but simple delivery, so much hinges on the performances, chiefly the lead of Kim Sae-ron's Jinhee. What she achieves is to muster such profound heart-breaking sympathy you would clear-out your spare room for her in a flash.
Which leads to the wider power of the film beyond Ounie Lecomte’s personal story. On notions of parents deserting their own children. On the importance of the adoption system to allow children another chance of family life.
The rural setting of the orphanage is shown as a bus ride out of Seoul, but is then portrayed as otherworldly. As if it the only building on the planet. At one point we see Jinhee attempt an escape, but are shown nothing further than her return where she is desperately picking dried rice from a saucepan back in the orphanage’s kitchen. For the children, that is exactly what the orphanage is – their entire world.
We can be grateful that A Brand New Life exists. That Ounie Lecomte has allowed us such a candid look at her life and a wider understanding of the experiences that a child such as her endured.