The Sewol Ferry sinking on April 16, 2014 stands as the biggest collective trauma leveled on South Korean society in the past decade. Of the 304 people killed in the accident, 250 were students and teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan City, who were traveling on a school trip. Not only did the tragedy devastate a community (and the rest of the nation, who watched helplessly on TV as the ship went down in real time), it produced a flood of unanswered questions: Why did the ship sink? Why wasn’t a fast and effective rescue operation carried out? Why did the government try to cover up key details about the accident? What should be done to ensure that such an incident will never happen again?
In the years since, quite a few films and documentaries have been made to grapple with these and other lingering questions. The politics surrounding the incident have grown only more bitter and divided with time. Now, exactly five years after the sinking, the film Birthday has emerged with a very focused objective. Avoiding overt references to politics or to the cause of the sinking, Birthday simply aims to give voice to the grief of the bereaved families.
The plot centers around Jung-il (Sul Kyung-gu), the father of one of the victims, who returns to Korea after years spent running a factory in Vietnam. His return causes a bit of a stir. He needs to be introduced to his young daughter Ye-sul, who doesn’t recognize him. It also soon becomes clear that his wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) does not want anything to do with him. One only needs to look at Jung-il’s face to understand that he is suffering, and haunted by the death of his son. But the process of reconnecting with his family is complicated, and takes time.
Soon-nam, meanwhile, is only barely hanging on. Her son’s room remains exactly as it was when he left to go on that school trip. In her community, she sometimes runs into other parents or classmates of the children who died, but for the most part, she tries to avoid them. At this point, a member of a volunteer group arrives and makes a suggestion. Her son’s birthday is approaching, and the volunteer offers to organize an event in his memory. It will be a birthday celebration, of a kind, where people who knew him gather to share their stories.
The Korean film industry is known for turning out a lot of tear-jerkers, but that term feels wrong as a description of this film. Debut director Lee Jong-un, who worked on the production team of Secret Sunshine and Poetry by Lee Chang-dong (who serves as a producer on this film), takes a nuanced approach to extremely emotional material. The hugely accomplished leads Sul Kyung-gu and Jeon Do-yeon take care not to exaggerate or embellish the parents’ grief. But it’s because of this measured approach that the film becomes so devastatingly sad by the end. Watching it is an intense, exhaustive and cathartic experience. Stories abound of strangers bonding in movie theaters over shared packs of Kleenex.
It may be that some viewers, particularly outside of Korea, feel alienated by the raw, communal expressions of grief in the film’s final half hour, which depicts the birthday event of the film’s title. But they do seem true to life. Director Lee based the script on her own observations while volunteering with bereaved families in the aftermath of the tragedy. In the coming years she became close to many of the families, and also attended events such as the one depicted in Birthday. Such gatherings, it seems, have been effective in helping families cope with their grief, and perhaps this film might serve a similar role, too.