Brand New Life, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/08/10 01:12:23

"... though not sort of life you'd wish on a kid."
5 stars (Awesome)

Though many cultures approach cinema differently, there are certain things that are constants. One of them is that if you open a film with a montage of a a happy child, something is going to happen to make the unsuspecting kid very sad, very soon. "A Brand New Life" does not disappoint; Ounie Lecomte's semi-autobiographical story will certainly make some folks cry with its quiet, honest depiction of a good kid who suffers all the more for seeing what's going on.

Lee Jinhee (Kim Sae-ron) is having a nice day as the movie opens. Her father (Sol Kyung-gu) is buying her new clothes, taking her out to eat, and you've never seen a face so happy as when Jin-hee rides on the back of his bike. The next day, they go to a bakery to pick out a cake - choosing the most delicious-looking cake is serious business for an eight-year-old girl - but they don't go home with it. Instead, they bring it an orphanage, and only Mr. Lee will be leaving that day. The new girl is not a model resident; she frustrates Bomo (Park Myeong-shin), the woman who handles day-to-day operations, and demands to director Koo (Oh Man-seok) that she be allowed to call her father. Initially refusing to speak, she quietly observes what's going on around her - that the oldest girl there, limping Yeshin (Ko Ah-sung), has a crush on a local boy (Mun Hack-jin), and that Sookhee (Park Do-yeon) has just had her first period. Despite or because both are rather hostile to their caretakers, Jinhee and Sookhee become best friends.

Although there are hints that Jin-hee's life isn't completely rosy as the film opens, even beyond the obvious - the song she sings for her father is a sad, prescient one, and the floor they sleep on doesn't look particularly clean or comfortable - there's no doubt from the start that this is not a happy place, despite the efforts of staff. It's dusty, with brambles rather than flowers; there are two fences, one inside the other; and our first glimpse of the children there has them loitering on top of and around the main building like a pack of coyotes. It's a very precisely created environment, the sort that tells us that every action Lecomte took in making this film is with purpose. It may not always be immediately clear what purpose - that the audience does not see Mr. Lee's face in the opening segment may hint that the film is going to be shot from Jinhee's perspective down near the floor, but when we do get a shot, there's another possibility, that her biological father has faded from memory except for that one moment. Those few seconds are all the information about how Jinhee's father truly thought about her that she or the audience is going to get.

Jinhee is a smart, observant little girl, though not necessarily mature for her age, and in many ways, that makes her the worst possible person to be in this situation. What Lacomte does with the structure of life in this place is interesting, as she doesn't focus on the orphanage being a bad place; the adults there aren't cruel or even that far above their heads. It's just the nature of the place: It's built to take children who have experienced just about the worst emotional trauma they can imagine and force them to experience variations on it again and again. Even as we grow to like the characters that Lecomte creates, every one of them and every subplot involving them serves to reinforce the quiet but unmistakable horror of this life.

(The next paragraph discusses the film's last few scenes; skip it if you like, although this isn't a movie that succeeds by surprising the audience.)

The movie acknowledges this, tying those threads together in the end. Some in the audience may question why, when Jinhee is such an angry, occasionally violent character, she's adopted by a couple in Paris ahead of the other girls, or speculate that it's because nobody who came to Korea to meet her would take her. There's some of that, but I think it's also non-cynical - the adults can tell that Jinhee's bright enough to see the pattern and know when she's being lied to. That's why it becomes so important that she find a home sooner than the kids who maybe never knew a parent's love - Momo sees that Jinhee is rapidly learning that the people she loves will abandon her.

The young actresses in this movie are fantastic. Kim Sae-ron is in nearly every scene, and the movie rests on her back. She sells us on Jinhee being almost perfectly happy as the film opens, which makes her transformation into a sullen, angry girl all the sadder. And while she doesn't speak for much of the movie, it's not just a matter of pointing a camera at a kid who has the right sort of face; her explanation of why she thinks she's been left there renders the audience as speechless as the doctor she tells it to. The contrast to Jinhee's quietness is Park Do-yeon as Sookhee - although she's got a reputation as a troublemaker as the movie opens, acting as a big sister to Jinhee seems to bring out the best in her. She's a little too cheery repeating the English phrases she knows, when Americans come, because she knows how the system works by now. And Ko Ah-sung's performance tells us what could become of Jinhee in miniature - a good-hearted and helpful person fighting constant rejection.

The adults deliver as well - Park Myeong-shin in particular turns in an impressively multifaceted performance - but that's third in importance to Kim Sae-ron showing us what's going through Jinhee's head and Ounie Lecomte setting the scene so well. Fortunately, they are all quite able to handle those tasks. "A Brand New Life" isn't heart-warming, though it stops short of heart-rending - though just close enough that we can see it.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.