Tag Archives: diaspora

Motherland: Cuba Korea USA (Dir. Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, 2006)

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 41 min

Second-generation Korean-Cuban Martha Lim Kim 

Korean-American documentarian Dai Sil Kim-Gibson opens Motherland with her own voice relating how her feeling of homelessness in her “adopted home,” the United States, led her to Cuba. There she meets Martha Lim Kim, a second-generation Korean-Cuban, and talks about Korea–the home of the past for both–and Cuba and US, their current homes. The conversation continues with Martha’s family and other Korean immigrants in Cuba. Their general pro-Revolution stance provokes Kim-Gibson to interview Korean immigrants in the US who fled Cuba after the Revolution. Their belief in the American dream and antagonism toward Cuba, inherited by their US-born children, makes Kim-Gibson look back to Cuba. At the end of the film, between the two (or three) countries, she seems to have found an answer that is not bound to any one country.

Although Motherland starts with a personal history, soon it becomes clear that the personal search for home inevitably coincides with political histories. Kim-Gibson, born in 1938, started her journey from her homeland North Korea to South Korea for “democracy” and then to the US for education, while Martha’s father fled Mexico to Cuba, where the revolution has accepted Martha and her children as true Cubans. The subject of Korean-Cubans branches from the documentarian’s interest in the less known peoples of the Korean diaspora such as the Sakhalin Koreans (A Forgotten People, 1995), the choice of this subject and her way of approaching it reflect her political frustration in the US.

Visual narration is as informative as the voice-over narration and interviews in Motherland. First, the documentary is bookended with shots of the filmmaker herself, first in Havana and in the end on the Brooklyn Bridge, providing a frame for the personal stories that share a common root, extend to three distinct countries, and interact with each other. The images of traditional Korea that accompany Kim-Gibson’s introduction to her personal history are followed shortly after by the shot of Martha in her traditional Korean dress. While these images project Korea as a place of the past, the houses of Martha and her sister reveal the recent history intertwined with their respective personal narratives. Martha’s house, a remainder/reminder of the colonial and capitalist Cuba, is compared with her sister’s house in Miami—a token of the middle-class, multiethnic American life. In addition to Kim-Gibson’s own footage, photographs from archives and family albums, as well as video records of historical events, are used extensively to tell personal stories.

Se Eun Gong 4/15/13

Searching for Go-Hyang (dir. Tammy Tolle)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 32 min

Distributor: Women Make Movies
Original Format: Video

Searching for Go-Hyang follows Tolle and her twin sister as they return to Korea (called “Go-Hyang” in Korean) to meet their estranged family. When the family business failed, their father became an alcoholic. Faced with serious financial burden, their mother put the two girls up for adoption to the United States at the age of eight. The mother was told that she would be able to contact her daughters, but after her children had been sent away, she was denied that right. Upon reaching America, the girls were subjected to physical and emotional abuse from their adoptive American parents. At sixteen, the two girls decided to move out of the house of their adoptive parents, and worked to support themselves through high school. After fourteen years of absence, the film documents the moment in which they reunite with their father and mother, and the conversations that they have with their biological family, through the assistance of a translator.

The film begins with explanatory words on the screen, describing the historical background of the Korean Civil War (1951-1953) that preceded the creation of the adoption agencies involved. These written commentaries continue throughout the film, either translating the Korean of the parents, or giving additional statements from the voice of the narrator. Tolle also utilizes a voice-over narration technique, criticizing the adoption agency, and the frustrations of identity that she experiences between her early life in Korea and her later life in America. Tolle also uses footage of herself and her sister describing their experiences in America to their parents (through the translator).

One noticeable absence from the text is footage or developed discussion of their American experience. The audience learns only that the mother’s name was “Cheri,” and that she tried to erase their cultural identities. All of the descriptions of abuse are told by Tolle and her sister in a very general way, without reference to specific instances, either through the descriptions they give to their biological parents upon reuniting, or through the written commentary on the bottom of the screen. As Tolle’s sister tells their parents that they did not speak English upon their arrival, the written commentary states, “We were forbidden to speak Korean.” When Tolle describes how their adoptive mother changed their names and cut their hair, the written commentaries reads “They told us we were ugly.” There is never any statement from the American parents, nor do the women describe specific instances in which they were abused; they simply mention that they were beaten and physically abused.

Presumably, the girls would not have any resources, or at least did not know of any resources, that might have helped them. There is no evidence that the girls entered the foster care system, nor that they pursued legal action against their American parents, and any evidence of the abuse would have disappeared long ago. It is also likely that the women had not spoken to their adoptive family since they left, six years prior to their return to Korea. Thus, the film focuses on the sentiments of the women upon reuniting with their family. The women meet their long lost brothers, begin to relearn Korean, and share a cheerful, at times poignantly funny, meal with their Korean family, as their mother reintroduces them to their favorite foods, squid and kimchi. Finally, the film is much more a portrayal of the emotional history of the two women, having endured abuse, and looking towards a rediscovered sense of identity, than a chronicle of the abuses of their past. The film ends in self-reflection, showing pictures of the women in high school with their friends, as Tolle tells us “There was no one to be proud of me.” She comes to terms with her Korean and American identities: “I do not wish I had stayed in Korea, nor do I regret or embrace that I was adopted…” appears as written commentary, before Tolle tells the audience “I have come to find peace with it. This homeland I will always search for is neither Korean nor the US but will always be parts of both.”