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Understanding South Korea's Historic Relationship With Adoption Through K-Dramas

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[Spoiler Warning for Vicenzo (2021) and Move to Heaven (2021)]

The media we enjoy can be powerful narratives that influence the way we view people. In other countries, we encounter media that have differing sentiments regarding marginalized groups such as orphans. In the Philippines, adoptees and orphaned children are portrayed primarily in a negative light—as powerless victims of neglect who are unloved and ridiculed. Is this negative portrayal of adoptees similar to other places? Considering different cultures abroad, does it manifest differently in other countries?

South Korea was once home to one of the biggest populations of intercountry adoptees. After the devastation wrought by the Korean War in the 1950’s, over 200,000 South Korean children were adopted overseas in the United States. Most of them were adopted not just by families in the US, but also families in Europe during the 1970’s to 80’s.

Because of this pivotal event in history, adoption has become an integral part of the historical identity of many South Koreans who grew up outside of their home soil. However, the identity of Korean adoptees have also been subjected to romanticization through K-dramas and continue to be challenged by popular series and films of recent years.

Spotlight 1: Vicenzo (2021)

The crime drama “Vicenzo” introduces lead Park Joo-hyung (played by Song Joong-ki) as a Korean orphan adopted by an Italian family. He is taken under the wing of the mob and climbs the ranks as he becomes the right-hand man of the Don. After the Don’s murder by a rival gang, Park Joo-hyung, now a mafia legal adviser by the name of Vicenzo Cassano, flees to Korea to wreak vengeance and recover his wealth.

For the Korean entertainment media and many of its invested viewers, this is an exciting and unique backdrop for a crime drama. However, for the director of Human Rights Beyond Borders Dr. Lee Kyung-eun, K-dramas such as Vicenzo perpetuate a “Korean adoption fantasy” that further disfranchises real Korean adoptees.

The story arc of Vicenzo is not an uncommon trope in Korean entertainment media. An intercountry Korean adoptee returning from the West arrives in their home country with a newfound possession of wealth and power that they use to challenge and overcome their adversaries. Although it is not completely far-fetched from reality, it encourages a romanticized narrative that Korean adoptees possess an elevated dignity only because of a privileged Western upbringing.

Dr. Lee Kyung-eun adds that the Korean adoption fantasy silences the voice of real Korean adoptees whose experienced realities are far more complex than sensationalized tropes in K-dramas. This is most evident in the hit Korean sports film “Take Off” (2009) directed by Kim Yong-hwa. Although the film is based on true events regarding Korea’s underdog entry into the Olympics through ski-jumping, it makes use of the Korean adoption fantasy as a central plot device to solve the story’s initial conflict.

The historic 1998 Winter Olympics is fast approaching in the timeline of the film, and the eccentric Coach Bang is seeking an experienced alpine skier to recruit together a team so they can compete. Although the three skiers he eventually convinces to join are skilled, each of them are out of shape and require a leader to return to a high-performing routine. In a seemingly Messianic fashion, Coach Bang meets Cha Heon-tae, an intercountry Korean adoptee and former U.S. junior alpine skier who was more than willing to help Coach Bang in his ambitious goal and bring ski-jumping to the mainstream in their home country.

Although the film was met with great success with the Korean public, Dr. Lee Kyung-eun states that both Vicenzo and Take Off paint an image that inaccurately portrays the diaspora of Korean adoptees and inhibits them from being the independent narrators of their own varying lived experiences. Fortunately, 2021 brought K-drama fans and viewers alike a series that provided an alternative narrative that challenged the mainstream Korean adoption fantasy.

Spotlight 2: Move to Heaven (2021)

While Vicenzo and Take Off began through a novelized intercountry adoptee story, “Move to Heaven” (2021) explores a more nuanced and trauma-driven plot. Instead of the privileged Korean-born American protagonist, the series follows the complex life story of an orphaned Korean PWD. Geu-ru is a 20 year-old man with Asperger’s Syndrome that lives with his uncle, Cho-Sang Gu, whom he works with in the trauma cleaning company called “Move to Heaven.”

Geu-ru knows little about his late father besides his being a firefighter in Busan and the founder of Move to Heaven. The series primarily focuses on developing the relationship between the two main characters and unraveling the backstories of Geu-ru and Sang-gu. In relation to a realistic depiction of adoption, Move to Heaven succeeds in its two main story arcs: (1) the legal challenges of guardianship and (2) the difficulties faced by orphans when confronting and overcoming their trauma.

Sang-gu is entrusted by his late brother, Jeong-woo, with his son Geu-ru shortly after his passing. Because of his history of involvement with an underground fighting ring, he is portrayed as an anti-hero who learns how to be empathetic to Geu-ru’s situation. In the culminating climax of the first season, the first three months of living under the same roof end and the final episode ends on a cliffhanger—leaving audiences to wonder if Sang-gu will retain legal guardianship.

Geu-ru’s friend’s mother is also implied as a potential antagonist for the next season as she pursues legal action in order to prevent Sang-gu’s guardianship. This not only depicts the legal wall adoptive parents have to scale, but also presents a common dilemma faced by adoptive parents of children who have been independently placed with them.

Lastly, the series manages to beautifully use Geu-ru’s job as a trauma cleaner as a vessel for pushing his character to pursue the truth of his father. It is revealed that he is actually Jeong-woo’s adoptive child, whom he rescued in a fire that killed his biological father. Overwhelmed with grief upon discovering the truth, he receives support from his uncle and adoptive family and finally gathers the courage to accept his past. He musters the courage to clean his father’s things and hear his last goodbye in a phone recording he recovered.

Instead of depicting Geu-ru as a helpless adoptee and a victim of tragic circumstance, he is portrayed as a young man able to come to terms with his past and overcome his trauma in a healthy way. Geu-ru is not boxed into a caricature of neglect, but finds happiness in his family, friends, and profound purpose in his job as a trauma cleaner.

Instead of following a typical intercountry adoption story that uses privilege as a superpower, Move to Heaven empowers not just Geu-ru, but also many real adoptees who relate to his struggles and share in his triumphs of dealing with trauma. Although K-dramas are subject to an exaggeration of real world scenarios, media can always be presented in ways that do not silence the voices of the marginalized, but empower them instead.



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