Berkeley filmmaker’s documentary career has covered the saga of Korean adoptees

Deann Borshay Liem began her career exploring the mystery of her own identity. In ‘Geographies of Kinship, her latest film, she’s looking to place personal stories “within a broader historical phenomenon.”

St. Paul’s Orphanage in Seoul around 1957. Courtesy: Deann Borshay Liem

In her 2000 detective documentary First Person Plural, Deann Borshay Liem uncovered the tangled mystery of her identity, which was shed and remade when a Fremont family adopted her from South Korea in the mid 1960s. 

A decade later, the Berkeley filmmaker followed up with In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, an essayistic doc detailing her efforts to track down the girl with whom she switched at the orphanage, while also exploring the fraught implications of international transracial adoption.  

On May 19, Liem’s latest chapter in her award-winning triptych airs on public television’s WORLD Channel as part of the America Reframed series. Rather than delving into her own experiences, she takes a wide-angle look at the rise of South Korea’s global adoption program with Geographies of Kinship. Following five adult adoptees as they return to the land of their birth, the film joins them on a vertiginous process attempting to recover history and connections severed decades ago.  

https://video.kqed.org/video/america-reframed-geographies-of-kinship-trailer/

“I made two very personal films about my own experience and ended up meeting Korean adoptees all over the world,” Liem said. “I came to wonder at how we arrived where we all arrived. At a certain point we can work out our personal feelings, but we really need to situate the personal stories within this broader historical phenomenon.” 

Deann Borshay Liem. Courtesy: Liem

When it comes to Korea, the broader historical context runs from Japan’s colonial annexation of the kingdom in 1910 and brutal occupation through the division of the peninsula at end of World War II and the devastating civil war between the communist North and U.S.-backed South. In the decades following the 1953 armistice, the ongoing American military presence in South Korea played a significant role in feeding a well-oiled pipeline that sent more than 200,000 Korean children to other countries, as in many cases the infants were fathered by American servicemen. 

It’s a saga that South Korea is still coming to terms with, and one thread of Geographies of Kinship follows adoptees supporting political reforms to ease the pressure on single mothers that long maintained the outflow of children. “The policies were often dominated by agencies or adoptive parents,” Liem said. “When I was looking at the history, I landed on individuals who had points of intersection with that history, who engaged with those structures. Over time, adoptees start having a voice in those policies.”

Other tectonic developments are driven by technology more than politics. Liem follows Estelle Cooke, who was part of the first group of mixed-race adoptees to return to Korea seeking their birth families in 2017. Like in so many other situations, the advent of DNA testing has upended assumptions about anonymity and opened doors to secrets long locked away. 

“DNA testing has had a huge impact on adoptees,” Liem said. “When Estelle took her DNA test it was still in the early years of testing and at that time it was expensive and not widespread. Now people give them as a birthday present. It’s opening up incredible opportunities to search for and locate family members. It’s continued after that 2017 trip Estelle was on. The majority of those women have found their biological father’s side of the family as well as many family members on the Korean side.”

Watch a trailer for First Person Plural

Liem continues to research and cover the saga of Korean adoptees, but she’s also exploring other aspects of the peninsula’s story. Her latest film, Crossings, keeps the focus on the unresolved Korean War. The documentary follows a group of 30 women activists who cross the DMZ from North to South Korea to draw attention to the unresolved conflict. And while her new film travels the film festival circuit, her breakthrough project, First Person Plural, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Bay Area Documentary from the San Francisco International Film Festival, is now available for streaming on Criterion Channel as part of the collection on Asian American Filmmaking 2000-2009

Liem credits her move to Berkeley in 1977 to study at Cal with setting her on this path. Adopted by a loving white family in Fremont, she grew up with no connection to Korean culture or even much contact with other Asian Americans. “I thought I was white growing up, like many Korean adoptees of the early years,” she said. “Coming to Berkeley in the mid-1970s, meeting all these Asian people and other Korean students, I underwent a major identity crisis. I wasn’t white. I was Asian, and I didn’t know what that meant.”

Her evolving self-definition was deeply informed by films she watched at the Pacific Film Archive, which played “a major role in how I visualized the Asian body and face,” she said. “At that time, in the ’80s, in terms of Asian American art and culture, it was predominantly Japanese and Chinese American. I remember reading Janice Mirikitani and learning about the internment camps. Having this community to ‘grow up’ in was so important. Thank God I made my way to Berkeley.”

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture reporter who has contributed to Berkeleyside since 2011.