First Person Plural
Imagine having three different names and three different birth dates. Deann Borshay Liem asks the viewers of her documentary film First Person Plural to do just that as she tells the story of her adoption in 1966 from Korea by American parents living in California. The film traces her childhood in America and desperate drive to assimilate perfectly into American culture, which—to all who looked at her—would say she accomplished quite successfully.
Yet, upon moving out of her parents’ house, Liem becomes haunted, literally, by memories of her past in Korea, a past that included a mother, father and four siblings. After the ghost of her father startles her by appearing in her car’s passenger seat, Liam knows that she must return to Korea and discover the truth about her adoption.
Once there, she meets her mother, brother, and sisters (her father died when she was an infant) and finds out that her real name is Ok Jin and that her identity had been switched with a girl named Cha Jung Hee (whose father had claimed her within the orphanage just weeks before her adoption was finalized). The remainder of the film chronicles her decision to have her American parents meet her Korean family because she believes this is the only way that she can hold both families together in her mind simultaneously and not have to choose between them.
The film, running at sixty minutes, follows a steady and even pace, intermixing photos and home videos from her childhood along with interviews with her American father, mother, sister and brother, and footage of the meeting between her American and Korean families. Beyond the film’s technical proficiency, its emotional impact is its greatest strength.
Her subjects are candid as they recount their reactions to her adoption and their current relationship to her, and the authenticity with which they express themselves is both refreshing and moving. For instance, Liem’s American family—in their well-meaning attempt to reassure her that she was a “real” member of the family—repeatedly dismisses the significance of her past and given name. Throughout the film, her father, mother and sister each assert that Liem’s “real” name is Deann or Cha Jung Hee, not Ok Jin, shrugging it off as a technicality. Liem’s dismay at this reaction is palpable.
Perhaps most touching is Liem’s difficulty discerning who her “real” mother is. Both of her mothers are gracious and supportive of their daughter as she struggles with this decision, and Liem comes to the realization that the only way to become closer to her Korean mother is to acknowledge that she is not, in fact, Liem’s mother after all. The scene in which Liem’s Korean mother tells her that she only gave birth to Liem and that she should do everything possible to make her American mother happy is heartbreakingly honest. Overall, the film touchingly explores the nature of identity, memory, and family, as Liem struggles to fuse her three names and two families into a cohesive whole.
While glancing over Mu Films’ website, I discovered that Liem has followed up First Person Plural with her latest documentary In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, released in 2010. In it, she returns to Korea and the orphanage out of which she was adopted to track down the girl with whom her identity had been switched. Given the quality and power of First Person Plural, I’m sure that joining Liem on this next phase of her journey to piece together her identity will be just as rewarding.