PARK CITY 2000 INTERVIEW: "First Person Plural," Will the real Deann Borshay
Liem please stand up?
by Richard Baimbridge
Everyone goes through a process of trying to figure out who they really
are. But for Deann Borshay Liem, who was orphaned in South Korea in the
1960s and adopted by a white, middle class American family, that process
was far more complicated, ultimately revealing to her great surprise
that she was someone else entirely -- someone she barely even
'First Person Plural' chronicles
The problem first began to surface as a young adult, when despite having
assimilated thoroughly into American culture and to her new family, Liem
began to have flashbacks of a previous identity. Yet everything in her
adoption papers told her she was Cha Jung Hee, a Korean orphan with no
Though it's difficult to explain why, Liem refused to accept that
answer, and started an investigation into her early life, writing to the
orphanage where she grew up. A few weeks later, she received a return
letter that began with the salutation, "My dear sister, Ok Jin." Liem,
it turned out, had been given a someone else's identity, and warned by
the orphanage as she was being put on a plane to America, never to tell
anyone who she really was. Somewhere in the process of learning English
and becoming an all-American girl named Deann Borshay, she had obeyed
that order and forgotten completely. When she received the letter,
however, the amnesia was over. And that's where the film "First Person
Plural" really begins.
"The day I received that letter," recalls Liem, "I opened it up and read
it as I was walking down Telegraph Avenue. It said 'My dear sister, Ok
Jin, I am so glad I found you after all these years. I am your brother.
Your name is Kang Ok Jin, not Cha Jung Hee.' I was walking down
Telegraph, laughing and crying at the same time. It's indescribable.
Before that letter, I really thought I was losing my mind."
Depression and haunting dreams drove Deann
At its best, personal documentary tells the struggle of an individual to
come to terms with an issue, and in the process, it helps the audience
understand themselves better, as well. Though few of the those in the
theater share in Liem's extreme circumstances, nearly everyone walks
away from this film identifying with her on a deep level, as evidenced
by the lengthy Q&A sessions at her screenings, which often carry on into
"I've been completely overwhelmed by the response," says Liem. "I think
a lot of people feel like they were born on another planet. But I think
the main reason people identify with this film is because it's
ultimately a story about family -- about how we define family, and how
we can be whole."
For Liem, that meant going to Korea to meet her birth family, facing her
mother and asking her why she had abandoned her, then gradually coming
to terms with it. It also meant re-defining her relationship with her
adoptive family, and returning again to Korea so that both sets of
parents could meet in person. At times, she seems provocative in her
quest, to the point of almost trying to hurt her adopted parents.
"When I first starting making the film, I do think there was an element
of me wanting to prove something to [my adoptive parents] -- to prove my
'Korean-ness' or teach them something about Korea. In the end, I
discovered this wasn't so much about them. They were accepting of me as
I was, but it was more about myself."
Yet the issue remained for Liem (and in some sense, still does) as to
how to get to know herself as a person, which nearly brought her to a
breaking point. She no longer even knew by what name to call herself.
Furthermore, the sense of fulfillment of meeting her natural family was
overshadowed by language barriers, cultural differences, and finally an
understanding that, despite biology, they were not her "real" family.
The film shows her process of initial joy of discovering her biological
family and Korean identity, but more interestingly, depicts her
abandonment of idealism, and the resulting friction over where to place
her loyalties. "I think a lot of personal documentaries are personal,
and yet they're not. But in this one, I'm totally out there. I was also
blessed to work an editor who was able to bring in badly needed
"First Person Plural" was picked up by PBS during Sundance, and
presented on P.O.V. It also recently won a Golden Spire award at the San
Francisco International Film Festival.
And how does Liem describe her identity now? "I now consider myself to
be Kang Ok Jin whose American name is Deann Borshay, since I'm now
married," she says with a smile. "And I feel comfortable with that."