Home of the Heart

in 73rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Andreea Patru

The Quiet Migration (Still Liv, 2023) is a film that portrays in delicate 16mm the heritage quest of an adopted South Korean teenager in rural Denmark. Directed by Malene Choi, this story of otherness was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize in the Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival.

Migration is all about new experiences, an influx of images, language, and culture that one immerses in. But what if migration is not only traveling to a place to begin a new life but distancing from one’s surroundings for self-discovery? As an adoptee of South Korean origin, Carl (played by newcomer Cornelius Won Riedel-Clausen) is a nineteen-year-old who starts to investigate his birth origin. Raised by a Danish couple on a dairy farm in the countryside, the young man trains to take over the family business, a destiny he seems to comply with despite an obvious lack of enthusiasm. An adoptee herself, the director Malene Choi gives much attention to Carl’s homestead and environment to create that “fish out of the water” feeling of an uprooted individual. 

From the beginning, the camera ponders slowly on the endless green fields that Carl and his father cultivate. Unseen by humans, a meteorite hits the ground in an uneventful collision. Nobody saw when it happened, but Carl and his father observe its effect: a big hole in the field produced by this foreign object. It’s a metaphor to which Malene Choi chooses to return to in unexpected ways, infusing the narrative with supernatural elements as Carl takes the alien item to his room. For the young protagonist, life in rural Denmark has little to offer than some outings at the local bar and regular visits to the stables or mowing the pastures. After returning from boarding school, he seems out of place even in his family environment. The interactions with his parents seem forced and uncomfortable as if the absence from home caused a tear in their relationship. Karen, Carl’s adoptive mother, played by Bodil Jørgensen, who starred in Lars von Trier’s Dogma 95 film The Idiots (1998), is especially good at conveying a charged atmosphere, asking questions, and trying to get to her son’s heart. She says all the right things, walking on eggshells as if trying to maintain a fragile balance of familiar interactions. Choi cleverly alternates sweet moments of meal sharing with tense dialogue like when proposing to celebrate Carl’s birthday on a different date to give priority to a blood-related relative. During the celebration, the subtle innuendos about his Asian origins are doubled by the carefully planned mise-en-scène, Carl being humorously framed by Danish flags and bucolic paintings of farm life. The entrenched discrimination shows further in small gestures like when his parents take Carl to a Chinese restaurant for his birthday or ignoring the verbal attacks based on racial stereotypes that he gets from curious villagers. 

Cinematographer Louise McLaughlin does a great job contrasting the long nature takes with tight indoor scenes, matching the young man’s inner life and suffocating feeling. The photography works best in dyads of vivid nightlife vs. subtle daylight, contrasting reality vs. the imaginary, and is emphasized by original music choices such as rapping. Even in terms of casting, Won Riedel-Clausen is physically smaller than the actor playing his adoptive father, looking defenseless and weak in the environment. 

Malene Choi supports the subtle storyline of self-discovery not only through a well-written script and character development but through an original visual style that progressively goes from documentary-like scenes to magic realist references. She overlays the peaceful Danish landscape with a composition of modern skyscrapers, to match her protagonist’s fantasy of Korea. He searches for traces of his past and adoption information to hold on to but finds little comfort in the erratic paperwork he discovers in the attic. In an escapist scene, the young man invents an entire life for himself, family and food preparation included, based on his rich imagination and media. If in the beginning, Carl doesn’t even remotely express interest in his ancestry when listening to a TV report on Korean adoptees, later on, he looks forward to a trip to Korea. He is so absorbed by the dream of getting there to the point of reconsidering his future. The idea behind Carl losing track of reality suggests that alienation can strike even when longing for a place we’ve never been to, that is, according to The Quiet Migration, the home of the heart.  

Andreea Pătru
Edited by Pamela Jahn