One of the greatest fears of childhood is being abandoned by your parents and left to face the world alone. In A Brand New Life, winner of Best Asian Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival, French director Ounie Lecomte recalls her childhood in South Korea with this sensitively rendered and touching story of a young girl who was left by her father in an all-girls Catholic orphanage to be placed for adoption. Set in Seoul in 1975, nine year-old Jin-hee, superbly performed by Kim Sae-rom, does not suspect anything out of the ordinary after spending a day with her father (Sol Kyung-gu) buying new clothes, going out to dinner, and taking a ride together on his bicycle.
When Jin-hee is suddenly dropped off the next day at an orphanage just after her father bought her a cake that she picked out, she is bewildered but believes that her father will return to bring her home. Left to adjust to a strange new environment, however, she is full of anger. Though she is treated well by the nuns and the other children, she refuses to comply with the rules and resists the requests of sister Bomo (Park Myeong-shin), the woman who runs the orphanage. Refusing to speak, eat or change clothes, Jin-hee pleads with the director Koo (Oh Man-seok) to allow her to call her father but he is unable to find him. Planning to escape, she spends the night outside in the cold.
When she decides to return, she begins to reluctantly accept that her father will not return and that she will sooner or later be placed for adoption, perhaps with a family from another country. Fortunately, she finds a friend in 11-year-old Sook-hee (Park Do-yeon), a bright and outgoing girl who has learned to say the right things to prospective parents, but often causes trouble with the nuns. The two girls practice English together, play card games, sneak extra pieces of cake for each other, and care for a sick bird. Sook-hee tells her that she has started to have her period but she must keep it a secret. They talk about another girl Yeshin (Ko Ah-sung) who is depressed by a letter she receives from a boy (Mun Hack-jin) that she has a crush on.
Even though she is able to bond with Sook-hee, Jin-hee remains distressed about the lies her father told her, taking out her frustration by destroying Christmas dolls given to children as gifts, and refusing to answer questions at a meeting with perspective parents. A Brand New Life involves the heart but refuses to pull out all the dramatic stops to ratchet up the tears. Though its theme is downbeat, it is not a depressing film because the children are shown as having amazing strength and resilience. When each girl leaves with a new family and the remaining children sing “Auld Lang Syne” — they are not just saying goodbye and lamenting the old times, but designing a brand new life for their friend and voicing hope as well for their own future.