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Stefan Says So: A Brand New Life (Yeo-Haeng-Ja)

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Winner of the Best Asian Film Award at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, and screened out of competition at Cannes this year, writer-director Ounie Lecomte’s debut feature film is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young South Korean girl who got abandoned by her single dad to an orphanage where she yearns a life of normalcy, still harbouring hopes that she’ll be reunited with the only family she knows.

One can imagine just how much reference from Lecomte’s own life got written into the film. Being unable to speak Korean and has French as a first language herself, Lecomte’s tale follows the adventures of Jinhee (Kim Sae Ron), a precocious little girl who ends up in France which probably accounted for the director’s own language skills or the lack thereof in her native tongue, and throughout the story you’ll find it pretty heart-wrenching especially when Jinhee tries to resist blending into the scheme of things in the orphanage, knowing that to go with the flow will mean to surrender all memory of her loved one and life as she knew, to making herself appealing for a new foster family to pick her up for adoption.

Thus beneath the exterior sweetness lies strong feelings of resentment and anger even, being unable to fathom how her dad can give her up so that she can supposedly lead a better life in a foster home in the mid 70s Korea, and likely one to be overseas given the kind of folks who drop by the orphanage to look for children to adopt.

The story’s episodic in nature as the orphanage serves as a temporary holding point in her life in between a giant leap of change, and flits between how Jinhee finds every opportunity to resist change, and how each time she embraces a little change through friendships forged, her heart gets broken all over again.

And having one’s heart broken too many times probably doesn’t bode well for a proper, balanced development, given that her trust with loved ones and friends got betrayed in the highest order. The gem and revelation of the film is the tour de force performance by Kim Sae Ron as Jinhee, who almost single-handedly lifts the film from start to finish giving an unbelievably strong performance for her age, dealing with the range of positive and negative emotions like a seasoned veteran.

You can’t help but to fall in love with the little girl, and share in her despair at being abandoned, and weep a little with her when promises made become shattered. Casting Sae Ron is a stroke of brilliance, as the actress’ performance was key to make or break this film, and thankfully, she was the miracle to breathe life into what was a straightforward story dealing with human emotions, nevermind the bleak landscape that spelt doom and gloom. This performance alone is well worth getting a ticket to the film.

For those interested, here’s the press conference clip from last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival where a Q&A session was conducted with Ounie Lecomte and Tetsuaki Matsue who won for his documentary Live Tape, which will make its Singapore debut during the Japanese Film Festival later this year.

––A Nutshell Review

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