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, the vast majority were students 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 opened, with a very focused objective. Avoiding all 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, 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 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 some 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. Director Lee Jong-un’s approach is subtle and nuanced, and the leads Sul Kyung-gu and Jeon Do-yeon – two of the industry’s most accomplished actors – take great care not to exaggerate or embellish the parents’ grief. But it’s because the filmmakers take this measured approach that it becomes so devastatingly sad by the end. Watching the film is an intense, exhaustive and cathartic experience. Stories abound of strangers bonding in movie theaters over shared packs of Kleenex.
For a movie like this to speak so eloquently and truthfully about a tragedy that affected so many people, is a rare gift. Director Lee herself volunteered with families in the aftermath of the sinking, witnessing their grief and attending many events such as that depicted at the end of Birthday. Such gatherings have proven effective in helping families cope with their pain, and one might venture to say the same of this film, too.