There is a secret language outsiders learn to speak among themselves. Sometimes it’s a knowing look, other times it’s an exasperated shrug. Always, it seeks the reassurance of being heard when (not if) they’re being misunderstood. It’s the silent language of the overlooked, and in the case of The Quiet Migration, Danish-Korean director Malene Choi’s second feature, the very few non-white non-natives in a farming town in Denmark speak it with the utmost reverence and mystery.
The film tells the story of Carl, a young boy adopted from South Korea now living in Denmark. A studious teenager who helps his parents run a farm, Carl is played by Cornelius Won Riedel-Clausen, himself (like Choi) an adoptee, a fact that lends his character an immediate sense of authenticity. Carl is naturally uneasy and innately awkward, but whether this is solely because of his status as a foreigner or as a teenager are questions that Choi frequently conflates. This is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a journey-to-your-roots after all.
Thanks to this lived-in nature of the characters, the rural day-to-day of farming, and the grainy 16-mm-shot frames, the film might seem like a straightforward slice-of-life story at first. But subversion arrives early, and then frequently, by way of sci-fi and the supernatural.
The movie opens with a bucolic scene of cows grazing and wheat flowing with the wind, only to be disturbed by a meteorite shot from space. Its arrival is explosive and messy, certainly out of place in this middle-of-nowhere town. But it has Carl thinking about his own strange entrance into this world. He keeps the extraterrestrial rock under his bed and, pretty soon, starts to conjure the ghosts of a biological mother he’s never met and a local Asian woman he’s never befriended. In lieu of a missing past, he starts to create one.
Things take a wonkier turn when, during a dinner with his parents’ relatives, a xenophobic discussion erupts among the elderly. One table speculates whether Carl would be interested in “his kind,” while another table debates the merits—or lack thereof—of immigrants (“They take the work Danes won’t do. Who else will wipe your ass when you get old?” one uncle, with faux sympathy, proclaims). When Carl is jokingly told to “travel back” to where he came from, everyone, including Carl’s father, chuckles.
Carl silently exits the room, his face seemingly blank. It’s only when he’s left alone with the only other Asian person at the event, Marie (Clara Thi Thanh Heilmann Jensen, also a real-life adoptee), he is able to express himself, albeit indirectly. The camera swivels at 180 degrees, stopping exactly when Carl is turned upside down.
His feelings were never small, just hidden. And though they may be unseen, they are very much felt.
Soon after, the ghosts haunt him more frequently. The rock under his bed quivers with rage. The ground literally shakes and fissures in his bedroom wall appear. These metaphors aren’t subtle, but they have to be loud because Carl isn’t. He’s so far into assimilation that when confronted with microaggressions like the ones mentioned earlier, he can only stay still. It’s the sort of politeness instilled by fear; when the majority have very strong opinions about who you are and where you should be, you, the minority, can only do so much to challenge that.
But as Choi shows us through these symbols and supernatural encounters, Carl is hurt. Of course he is. His feelings were never small, just hidden. And though they may be unseen, they are very much felt. In fact, they cannot be more epic. The indirect nature of this figurative language gives us a sense of what Carl might be going through. Not exactly Danish and not exactly Korean, he’s had to build his own world of communication.
Sound plays a role in telling us how Carl feels as well. The surprising injections of R&B and hip hop potentially point to an inner world, and like the film’s preference for imagery over words, they are as minimal as they are meaningful. When his music isn’t playing, we’re subject to a striking if not unnerving sort of silence that hints at the growing distance between Carl and this place he’s called home.
Interestingly, it’s when his family cancels a trip to South Korea that the mild-mannered Carl gets finally, properly mad. He raises his voice as he demands to know why. He sprints to his next destination. The meteorite has melted and the cracks on the walls have opened up to reveal another wall, wooden and weak, beneath.
In a wondrous moment of magical realism, Carl is instantly transported from Denmark to South Korea. Whether he’s actually there or not doesn’t really matter; the sad point of the trip is that he is still lost. Among people who look like him, he remains very much a stranger.
Throughout the movie, Carl has been seeking recognition. He briefly gets it when he meets Marie and, later on, when he “arrives” in Korea. He has also gone so far as to invent people and carry them around with him like imaginary friends he can turn to at a moment’s notice. But the state of being alone never quite leaves him. Being an adoptee, he learns, is a nationality of its own, consisting of a world and language of its own.
Read our exclusive interview with director Malene Choi here.