Monday, August 11, 2014

Approved for Adoption (now on video)

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

It's sad when a once-worthy narrative gambit wears itself out. Remember once upon a time when the found-footage gimmick seemed so fresh and exciting? It's so overdone now that I can't imagine THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT getting booked today at the Cleveland International Film Festival, let alone its historic Sundance slot.

Once upon a time a film was considered brave to reference 9/11; nobody much notices now. Maybe if someone makes the first September 11th balls-out comedy (WORLD TRADE CENTER CRASHERS, anyone?), and even then...who cares?

I'd like to ascribe this jaded, South Park/Omigod everything is crap! attitude to our present-day, dumbed-down society and attention spans, but I'm pretty sure the syndrome is as old as the movies themselves. I'm told it took just a few years for audiences of the silent era to lose their enthusiasm for recorded sound and talkies.

The latest innovation to wear out its welcome, I suspect, is the mix of live-action and animation in a nonfiction-film format. Once semi-cartoon documentaries such as WALTZ WITH BASHIR were film-festival darlings. Now I fear it is perceived as yesterday's flavor-of-the-month, and too bad, because I still find it diverting. Perhaps I am too easily impressed.

An impressive new mixed-media documentary I've seen is APPROVED FOR ADOPTION, an autobiography by Belgium's Jung Henin, an accomplished comics artist/writer, co-directing with Laurent Boileau.

One wishes this exquisite animated docu-memoir had stuck with a literal translation of the more evocative original French title (derived from a source graphic novel) "Skin Color: Honey." I guess in today's LA Clippers climate, that tag would be declared racist. And trembling white folks would have to give a lot of racketeer money to Al Sharpton. No, I don't know why that goes on either (something to do with all the Che Guevara posters I saw in faculty offices when I went to college, no doubt).

But APPROVED FOR ADOPTION it is. The South Korean-born Jung Henin was found as a little boy abandoned in a Seoul marketplace. In the early 1970s he was adopted by a large Belgian family - it was his second foster home; a first returned him over a trivial imperfection, a bruise that quickly faded, an incident which seems to loom somewhat large in the fellow's lonely, defiant, me-vs.-them worldview.

While accepted by his non-biological Belgian siblings and parents, he struggled with a feeling of being an outsider, not quite belonging to the East or the West. Accordingly and amusingly, the cartoon version of Jung we see goes through a phase of intense Japan-o-philia, dashing around in his briefs imagining himself a samurai, when he wasn't flirting with a mildly 400 BLOWS school existence of artistic precociousness, running away from home, petty crime and cheating in class. All acts that repeatedly disappointed his Belgian parents.

The filming style is a mixture of live-action and documentary sequences of the now-adult artist-writer revisiting his ancestral Korean homeland, mated with excellent computer-assisted 2D renderings of the childhood memories, inspired by Jung's sketchwork - which, I am pleased to report, is not Japanese anime-style, by any means. The movie only hints at Henin's later prominence in doing adventure and erotic comics. Looks like a writer/artist's ripest years for drama are the youthful ones. 

Even as Jung criticized Belgian society as taking in unwanted Korean children as a sort of trendy fashion statement, he concludes here that he really did not show enough appreciation for his Belgian papa and maman, as well as his adopted country. Ultimately he embraces both his western and Asian facets as best he can. Meaning when his job is outsourced, it's okay; he'll likely be the one that gets it (rimshot).

Seriously, though its title is likely to make it sound like an institutional video, APPROVED FOR ADOPTION is a young artists' memoir worth a look. It reminded me in numerous ways of one of my favorite films of recent years, Eric Khoo's TATSUMI, which anthologized (via B&W animation) several tales by icon-bashing Japanese underground-comix creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi. An APPROVED FOR ADOPTION/TATSUMI double-bill would be something to see. Perhaps John Ewing at the Cleveland Cinematheque could put that together, if he isn't losing money fast enough already. (3 1/4 out of 4 stars)

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