In 1966, Cha Jung Hee was an 8-year-old girl at Sun Duck Orphanage who became one of the thousands of Korean orphans adopted by Americans in the years following the Korean War. U.S. military presence, Cold War politics and the realities of a war-torn society still struggling to climb out of the ruins made Korea the primary source for international adoptions by Americans, and it would remain so for many years. All such adoptions can present daunting challenges to adoptees as they come of age and try to understand their split heritage. But this story had a further twist.
For Cha Jung Hee, the good fortune of being whisked away to an affluent country by loving new parents masked even more troubling questions. For one thing, Deann Borshay, as little Cha Jung Hee became known in America, wasn’t an orphan. As related in Liem’s earlier documentary First Person Plural, lingering memories led the filmmaker to discover that her birth family was still alive. And there was another buried memory. Liem wasn’t Cha Jung Hee at all. She was Kang Ok Jin, another 8-year-old girl at Sun Duck Orphanage. Her identity had been switched with Cha Jung Hee’s just before the latter was to be adopted by the Borshay family in California. She’d been instructed to keep that secret even from her adoptive parents. But why was the switch made? And what became of the real Cha Jung Hee?
Liem’s quest to understand the act that determined the course of her life impels her to find the real Cha Jung Hee. Armed with a tattered black and white photo of Cha Jung Hee and the shoes her mother-to-be sent more than 40 years earlier for her journey to America, Liem returns to a bustling, modern Seoul and a Korea vastly different from the devastated country she left in 1966. As In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee shows through old photos and newsreels, endemic poverty, lingering destruction from the war and a huge population of orphaned, lost and abandoned children set off humanitarian campaigns in a dozen Western countries to encourage adoption of Korean children. During Liem’s visit, she attends the annual gathering of the International Korean Adoptee Associations and meditates on the randomness of fate that turned her into an American rather than one of the Swedes or Danes she meets. She also learns that the tide of Korean adoptees — some 200,000 — peaked as recently as 1985, well after the country had become developed, democratic and prosperous. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee raises a troubling question: How and why did a humanitarian effort become an industry worth millions of dollars?
But Liem’s first stop is the Sun Duck Orphanage. She reviews the orphanage’s files with current director Kim Dae Jin and discovers another photo of the real Cha Jung Hee. A switch certainly was made, and the social worker who cared for the children reveals the reason: Cha Jung Hee was not an orphan. On a night shortly before she was due to leave for the United States, her father showed up and took her away. Rather than disappoint the Borshays, the orphanage substituted one 8-year-old girl for another, complete with a forged passport and brand new American shoes. Was this a purely humane decision or was there some financial motivation as well? In any case, the real Cha Jung Hee had disappeared with her father, and no one knew what had become of her. Liem’s quest leads her and her interpreter to make calls to more than 100 Cha Jung Hees in the phone book, and she meets several women named Cha Jung Hee who turn out not to be the one she seeks, but who give her a glimpse of who she might have become. Then Liem visits the Police Separated Families Bureau and encounters a policeman who specializes in reuniting families. The stories of Koreans who lived through the dark past, begin to accumulate, offering a rare and intimate recollection of a shared time of violence, social disintegration and difficult choices. But the Cha Jung Hee who haunts Liem’s dreams remains elusive.
Ultimately, she does meet a woman who may be the Cha Jung Hee she is seeking. The photographic evidence is striking and the outlines of the two women’s stories intersect. The little girl’s shoes that Liem has saved even spark memories and tears in this Cha Jung Hee. But there is no way to be certain. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee still manages to get inside the stories that determined the fate of so many Korean children and changed the lives of many American families.
Both a meditative quest and an historical whodunit, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee reveals that in today’s world the search for identity — by Korean adoptees of the 1960s and ’70s, or by any child displaced by history — may yield more questions than answers. “For years, Cha Jung Hee was, paradoxically, both a stranger and also my official identity — someone unknown but always present, defining my life,” says director Liem. “I felt I had to search for Cha Jung Hee finally to put my questions to rest by meeting her and finding out how she has fared. In the course of my journey, I met many women named Cha Jung Hee and through their stories imagine what my life would have been like had I stayed in Korea. “Although I arrived in America walking in Cha Jung Hee’s shoes, I can see now the path I’ve taken has always been my own. And if I look closely, I can see a glimpse of the girl I used to be and I can picture her stepping out of the past and into the present.”
In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is a co-production of Mu Films and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in association with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Katahdin Productions and American Documentary | POV.