Though aimed primarily at TV viewers, “First Person Plural” could spark additional interest at specialty film fests and noncommercial exhibition venues. Limited homevid afterlife also appears to be in the cards for Deann Borshay Liem’s intensely personal meditation on her bicultural identity as a South Korean adoptee raised in San Francisco by Caucasian parents.
In an even-handed but inevitably bittersweet account, filmmaker recalls her happy childhood in the 1960s and ’70s with loving adoptive parents and siblings. Like her American family, she never questioned the info in her adoption file, which indicated that she was placed in a South Korean orphanage after the death of her mother and father. As far as she knew, Liem was all alone in the world until Arnold and Alveen Borshay — then regular contributors to an international fund for orphans — offered to raise her as their daughter.
Throughout her youth, Liem emphasizes, she felt totally accepted by her U.S. family. Quite obviously, the feeling was mutual: “You don’t have the family eyes ,” notes Duncan Borshay, her gruffly affectionate brother, “but you’ve got the family smile.”
As she reached adulthood, however, Liem uncovered some shocking facts about her past. First off, her original name was Kang Ok Jin — not, as she had always been told, Cha Jung Hee. Ok Jin’s biological mom, driven by economic necessity, had placed her youngest daughter in the orphanage only as a temporary measure. But when Jung Hee’s parents claimed their little girl just before she could be shipped off to the Borshays, orphanage officials simply substituted Ok Jin without telling anyone about the switch. Liem also learned that her biological mother, brothers and sisters were still alive and well in South Korea.
“First Personal Plural” treads carefully but purposefully through an emotional minefield as Liem records her efforts to reconcile her profoundly mixed feelings. She deeply loves her American family — none of whom, apparently, knew or suspected anything about the Korean orphanage’s subterfuge. While she’s reluctant to offend her understandably anxious adoptive parents, Liem feels compelled to trace her Korean roots.
Pic’s centerpiece is Liem’s 1998 journey to her homeland, a trip that’s all the more heavily laden with emotional baggage because the filmmaker is accompanied by her adoptive parents. Melancholy but optimistic ending leaves a viewer with the impression that Liem has been remarkably blessed: Thanks to two nurturing families, she’s been able to make the best of a painful, potentially traumatic situation.
Tech package is standard for tube-bound fare. Archival footage of South Korea and 8mm home movies are skillfully woven into the mix to enhance and illuminate the compelling first-person account.