An adopted Korean teenager struggles with life in rural Denmark in Malene Choi’s understated second feature.
Dir: Malene Choi. Denmark. 2023. 103mins
Living in a country is not the same as belonging to it in Malene Choi’s quasi-autobiographical second feature. An understated reflection on the emotional fallout from trans-national adoption, its mixture of documentary-like observation, social realist drama and more whimsical elements sometimes feels as mild-mannered as the central character. The subtle, low-key approach eventually pays dividends as it builds into an intriguing, involving coming-of-age tale with affinities to Minari (2020) and Riceboy Sleeps (2022).
Choi made her feature debut with hybrid doc-fiction The Return (2018). The Quiet Migration was selected for the Torino Script Lab and also has a strong documentary flavour to the storytelling; further festival attention should follow its Berlin Panorama Premiere.
Nineteen year-old Carl (Cornelius Won Riedel-Clausen) lives in the Danish countryside with his adoptive parents Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) and Hans (Bjarne Henriksen). Choi embeds the story in the rhythms and rituals of the family dairy farm, Louise McLaughlin’s evocative 16mm photography capturing a timeless world of starry night skies, swaying wheatfields, the changing seasons and the relentless demands of daily chores. The muted rural palette of greens and browns and the comfort of age-old routines might suit Karen and Hans but they are increasingly oppressive to Carl – not that he would ever complain. Everything that surrounds him is a reminder of the farm, from the painting on the wall to china ornaments of cows perched on the mantlepiece.
This rural life is isolating and the film’s visuals underline the way in which Carl is overwhelmed by his surroundings. He is framed against a giant wall of harvested wheat or seen next to an expensive new tractor that looks like something out of Transformers. Carl is of South Korean heritage (like Choi herself) and there is a constant sense of his otherness; sometimes subtle, sometimes not. A wider family gathering includes a drunken relative who casually asks why Carl doesn’t just “travel back to where he came from”. There are no voices raised in his defence.
Carl has recently returned from college and it is assumed that one day he will take control of the farm – a prospect that weighs heavily on his young shoulders. There are few opportunities to build friends, find romance or even to let off some steam. He seems more comfortable tending to a new born calf in a barn than he does in most social settings. His one friend is Polish seasonal farmhand Andrzej (David Sciupidro), a fellow outsider.
Carl is part of a family who don’t talk much, and certainly not about the things that matter. Their exchanges are marked by a good deal of reticence and avoidance of any potential conflict. When Carl asks Karen is she had ever wanted a child of her own, she quietly leaves his room rather than respond. Choi finds many ways to convey the growing pressures on Carl. His solitary running through the countryside grows more frequent and intense, and he is visited by a number of benign, ghostly companions calling him towards South Korea. Fragments of a meteor land on the farm – another object transplanted and deposited in a foreign land.
Newcomer Riedel-Clausen plays Carl as a diffident, uncomplaining figure but there is always a sense of troubled currents beneath his unruffled surface. Choi tells Carl’s story but shows considerable compassion for his well-meaning adoptive parents and the heartbreaks they have endured. The Quiet Migration is infused with a great generosity of spirit. The balance and compassion she brings to the story bleeds out the melodrama, but makes the understanding reached by the family all the more credible.
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