In "The Hanji Box," an American woman seeks to repair her relationship with the child she adopted from Korea almost 20 years earlier. She sees her daughter as American as she is. Why does the girl seem to need more?
The mother's efforts to understand her daughter's birth culture, and her desire for that culture to adopt her as well, make for a multi-faceted story of love, loss and connection.
"It's almost an adoption story in reverse," said writer/director Nora Jacobson, who also wrote and directed "Delivered Vacant," a film about gentrification in Hoboken. "There's not a big climax of understanding per se. This is a journey."
Currently playing the festival circuit in the U.S. and abroad, the 61-minute film comes to MONDO Summit Dec. 9. After the viewing, Jacobson and cast members will take questions from the audience. The programming is sponsored by the Film Society of Summit.
The title refers to a box decorated with hanji paper, made from the inner bark of mulberry trees, which are common in Korea. The strong, fibrous paper is strong and shiny, reported to last hundreds of years. The boxes are used to hold jewelry and other treasures.
In the film, which was inspired by a memoir written by one of Jacobson's childhood friends, mother Hannah asks adopted daughter Rose to help her pack for a move. During the tense process, Rose's hanji box is damaged. Both mother and daughter are upset, but perhaps what's most troubling is what happens next: Hannah says she and her husband purchased the box for Rose in NY's Koreatown. Rose insists she brought it with her from Korea, a gift from her birth mother.
Determined to prove herself right, Hannah goes to Koreatown, where she meets an artist who offers her insight into Korean culture and shares the less-favorable view of international adoption some Koreans hold. He calls it "embarrassing," saying Americans take Korean babies from their home country and "change into American." He asks at one point, "So adoption is for you -- or her?"
International adoption of South Korean children began in earnest after the Korean War ended in 1953. Some of the children had been orphaned by the conflict. Others were the children of American servicemen who'd returned to the U.S. Critics of the practice -- then and now -- view this as an unfit industry engaged in the exportation of children.
"Back then, when American parents adopted kids from other cultures, they hardly knew anything about the child's birth culture," Jacobson said. "Now it's almost expected, with social service agencies, that people should be open and learn about the country where their children are from."
Natalie Kim, who stars as Rose, said she understands the daughter's cultural confusion. Kim, in her 30s, was born to a Korean mother and adopted by an American family.
"I avoided believing adoption affected my entire life and I tried to live as a clean slate, but it become obvious to me that it impacts everything," said Kim, who grew up maintaining a relationship with her birth mother. "Whether I should live by that is another thing."
Jacobson said the actors -- including co-producer Suzanne C. Dudley, who stars as Hannah -- improvised some of the final scenes. As a result, she said, "I think it creates the most authentic portrayal. ... The dynamics between mother and daughter seem very true."
Kim had some advice for adoptees who were struggling to find their core.
"Every adoption story is different. You will find your way. Try not to let others affect you," she said. "Allow time for your story to unfold, and be really really kind to yourself."