GKIDS brings Jung’s autobiographical live-action/animated documentary to the City of Angels.
Documentaries—good ones, anyway—tend to fall on either side of a wide-arcing pendulum swing. The first are the detached, clinical, observational sort, which give an audience a (hopefully) unbiased feed of information and invite them to form their own opinions. The second type are the deeply personal films that come from creative minds brave enough to lay their experiences on the table along with their hurts, reactions, questions and epiphanies.
Now, thanks to New York-based indie distributor GKIDS, U.S. documentary buffs and animation fans get a chance to catch one of the most powerfully personal films of the year: artist Jung Henin’s (who goes by Jung) Approved for Adoption (Couleur de Peau: Miel, “Color of Skin: Honey”). The French-Belgian co-production blends live-action footage of Jung as he travels back to his native Korea with animated flashback sequences of his struggles growing up in a large adoptive European family. His story is just one of many to come from the deluge of adoptions set off at the end of the Korean War.
The film, which debuted in French theaters in June of 2012, was inspired by Jung’s graphic novel about his young life and how his emerging sense of identity as he grew up caused tension in his family and revealed their underlying biases.
“[Documentary filmmaker] Laurent Boileau, the co-director of Approved for Adoption, wanted to make a documentary about my return to Korea,” Jung explains. “He read my comic books and was very touched by my story … My diversity and the ambivalence in my identity influenced the form of the film, but I was also inspired by all the movies I like. Such as Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata, Miyazaki films, Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders, Alejandro González Iñárritu films, etc.”
An Animated Upbringing
While Jung says the goal was not to stick exactly to the graphic style of his comics, the animation used for flashbacks and dream sequences were designed to reflect his artistic expression. “Since the story is autobiographical, it was sticking to my artistic language. I had the feeling that the movie emphasized the subjective dimension of history. This is a true story, regarding a family that still exists, and my parents are still alive. But, this is the version of the facts reported by me. With drawing and animation, I assumed that subjectivity. In my graphic novel, I repeatedly use the dreamlike or symbolism. The animation allowed me to fulfill my visual choices; a transposition in [live action] would probably distort.”
As a graphic artist, the director was hesitant when France Television in Nancy offered to make a pilot in CG, but the demands of production and good results of the tests made it clear that this was the best method. However, the dream sequences are in 2D, adding another level of story segmentation through visual cues.
Though the majority of the animation was produced in France, the production utilized the increasingly common strategy of connecting animators working from home all across Europe over the Internet. Working in Autodesk’s 3D Studio Max, the team used Skype to connect with a chief animator based in the South of France and a virtual studio created from scratch. To share and manage digital 3D animation assets the production turned to DAMAS, a cloud-based system. It took a team of 15 3D animators, 12 rendering-compositing folks, about six 2D animators, five designers, four character designers and four layout artists (not to mention the live-shoot crew in Korea and post production team) about a year and a half to complete production.
A New Chapter
Approved for Adoption has fittingly won approval both at home and at festivals around the world. Notably, the inventive hybrid-documentary earned two coveted awards at Annecy (Audience Award, UNICEF Award), where it was also nominated for the Cristal. It also took home honors at Animafest Zagreb and Anima Mundi in Brazil. While these top notch toon fests have honored the film, the Academy of Motion Pictures’ stricter animated feature qualifications have influenced GKIDS to enter it in the Best Documentary race.
Jung says he most admires comic creators who create a distinct universe—artists like Osamu Tezuka, Moebius, Katsuhiro Otomo and Chester Brown, as well as indie creators. He adds that he is a huge Studio Ghibli fan and enjoys the works of filmmakers Park Chan Wook and Bong Jong Ho, though Alejandro González Iñárritu is his favorite. However, his film was primarily influenced by the demands of his story, from his point of view, in his words and through his creative expression.
Still, filmmaking was a very different experience for Jung. “With a comic book, you are the sole master of your work—a piece of paper and a pencil are all you need,” he notes. “A film is very heavy teamwork. A director has to have a very clear vision of what he wants to do, and impose his ideas, but also be able to put them in question. I think, despite some conflicts, I was able to make the film that I wanted to make.”
Now that the learning curve is behind him, Jung’s advice to other aspiring filmmakers is simple. “The technique that was learned during all those long years must serve a story. Technical demonstrations should never be at the expense of storytelling. The end must always justify the form.”
GKIDS presents a limited engagement of Approved for Adoption at Leammle Music Hall in Los Angeles November 22-28.