It is 1975 and a bus near Seoul pulls over and Jinhee gets out. She is told by her father to hurry and as the whole bus waits, she pees behind a haystack. Her new black shoes get stuck in the mud.
She hugs her father after he washes her feet in a restroom. He pulls his arms away from her and says, "Let's go buy the cake." They stop at a bakery and Jinhee cannot decide which cake to buy. Her father tells her to buy what looks most delicious and then Jinhee is seen carrying a white box with yellow ribbon, proudly and happily. She walks along next to her father who tells her to get along with the other children and to do what the adults tell her.
She asks him if he is leaving and he says, "No. I am going in with you." They ring the bell at a gate for a very austere building. Other girls, dressed in drab play clothes watch Jinhee with curiosity as she carries her cake in, while wearing a party dress and her nice black shoes.
A nun leads them to an office space where a professional looking man in a sweater, Mr. Khoo and another nun greet them. One of the nuns offers to take Jinhee on a tour and so Jinhee goes with her though she looks scared and confused. Her father goes into the office and for the first and only time in the film is his face fully shown. He looks sad, a little overwhelmed perhaps, and Jinhee is taken into a school room to introduce herself but runs away toward the gate. In her party dress and purple coat she sees her father walking away from the closed gate upon the country road and Mr. Khoo heading back to the building with his head down and holding the cake in its big white box with yellow ribbon.
The orphans share the cake among themselves, the smaller ones getting pieces. They don't have plates but hold the cake in their hands. They all say grace upon the manager's instruction, "Thank you Father in heaven for the yummy cake." Sookhee, one of the older girls of about 12 years of age wants cake too. But it is for the younger girls.
It is not known exactly what Jinhee's father said to her but the manager of the orphanage goes through a pile of clothes, picking out something to fit Jinhee. And while she does this, she says to Jinhee, "You sure? He really said that?" Jinhee is sure and the manager has to tell her matter of factly while trying to get her to change into a red sweater that her father lied to her. "My Daddy's not a liar!" replies Jinhee while refusing to make eye contact. She doesn't want to change into the red sweater.
She hides in some bushes in the yard and the older girls pick on her by poking her with sticks. Jinhee stays in the bushes past dark, then she runs inside, once she is scared and hungry enough. She goes into a lit but sparse kitchen and takes a bowel placed over her piece of cake, except the cake is not there. Jinhee is found by the manager and one of the nuns asleep on the kitchen floor. She is picked up by the sweet manager whose name is never known, and taken to bed.
The next morning Jinhee wears her red sweater and does not want to eat. The manager tells her not to waste food, which causes Jinhee to knock all her breakfast, three bowels, off the table and onto the floor. The mistress tells Jinhee she is staying until she cleans it up. Sookhee cleans it up for her but tells her to stop acting like a baby.
Jinhee continues to give the orphanage holy hell. She insists to Mr. Khoo that she is not an orphan and does not belong there. She wants to call her father but Mr. Khoo tells her he does not have her father's number. Her father told her she was going on a trip. Mr. Khoo reminds Jinhee that she is not the only child there who was either given up or rejected by her parents. Not all are orphans because their parents are physically dead.
She tries to climb the wall to get out and the manager, who is hurt and fed up says to her, if you really want to go, the gate is open. Jinhee climbs down and walks out of the gate along an open, desolate and unpaved road. It is a little surreal to see such a little girl walking along such a road by herself.
Jinhee comes back when she is hungry to be in the kitchen with a huge bowel of rice by herself. In her night wanderings Jinhee comes across Sookhee cleaning period-blood stained clothes in a bowel. Sookhee warns Jinhee that if she opens her mouth she will kill her as Sookhee does not want anyone to know she is menstruating.
The orphanage, though unadorned, is clean and professionally run. All the girls have to go to Mass, and are given shots, eye tests and are screened for academic levels. Jinhee can divide 3 digit numbers which, for the third grade level, is quite good.
She tells, the Doctor testing her school levels by asking her to fill in colors in shapes, that she is in the orphanage because her father came home with a new wife and baby. Jinhee held the baby but it would not stop crying. The baby was stuck by a pin and Jinhee was blamed for nearly killing the baby. The Dr. tells Jinhee that she is really at the orphanage because her father wanted her to have a better home, which is true enough in ways. Jinhee is given a number to wear on her shirt that says K-2808. Her picture is taken with the tag on and Jinhee does not smile for the photo.
Jinhee and Sookhee crouch over an injured bird and Jinhee asks Sookhee why she doesn't do something about the bleeding as she could die. Sookhee smiles and explains the blood is from her period and all women get one. And that it doesn't mean she is having a baby just that she can have a baby.
The girls also spy on Yeshin, a teenage orphan, with a bad leg, who makes the point that not every orphan wishes to leave. Though their home is starkly utilitarian, the girls are educated, if not given many books or films. But they are familiar with stories. Yeshin is at home and does not want to leave fearing she will become nothing more than a servant for the couple that wishes to have her.
Jinhee and Sookhee adopt the bird and try to get it to eat. Yeshin gives a love letter to a fellow who comes and goes on his bike. He returns the gesture with a letter of his own that he hands to Sookhee through the bars of the gate. Sookhee hands the letter, without reading it, to Yeshin as instructed, and Yeshin; excited to receive the letter is devastated by its contents.
Rain pours down and the two best friends bring the bird in a box inside. Yeshin leaves to find her lover and is in trouble for her efforts. The manager, is a good mother to the girls. The bird does not survive and is given a proper ceremonial burial. Just as the prayer is finished, the manager rushes out of the gate with Yeshin on her back and two nuns at her side. Later in the day both Sookhee and Jinhee are interviewed for adoption. Jinhee stares with her chin pointed down and refuses to speak to the adoptive parents.
Yeshin is brought back to apologize to everyone for attempting suicide while the girls giggle and laugh at her until she begins to laugh herself. Yeshin is lead out with an elderly couple without the usual farewell. She looks back at her home one more time and a nun asks her if she has forgotten something. She goes and Mr. Khoo locks the gate behind her. The mistress beats at carpets and looks like she wants to cry. It is winter now.
Sookhee teaches the girls English. She is adopted by the parents Jinhee would not speak to. The girls sing auld lang syne to Sookhee and she is driven away through the gate by her parents. Jinhee, without her best friend, continues to act up, cutting up dolls given to them for Christmas. She rips off the dolls' heads, their arms and legs until a ravaged torso is all that is left. The manager slaps her across the face, then takes Jinhee outside and hands her a stick to beat the laundry with. Jinhee does this as she cries.
Mr. Khoo, at Jinhee's request, did everything he could to find her parents but they are no longer living in the same place. The owner of a rice store, near the house, did not know where they had moved to. Jinhee says she is not feeling well in the morning and while everyone is away for Mass, digs a grave and then commences to bury herself alive. The dirt covers her face but Jinhee cannot keep it that way.
She breaks through and brushes off the earth to stare at the sky. She is given photos of the French family wanting to adopt her. Jinhee flies to meet them at the airport, and under her bangs, her adorable black eyes gaze at her brand new life.
By Sarah Bahl