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Korea Blog: “Birthday,” the First Tearjerker About the Ferry Disaster that Killed 250 High-School Students

When I first visited Korea, less than three months had passed since the sinking of the MV Sewol. The pall cast by the more than 300 deaths it caused, 250 of the them having been high-school students, showed no sign of even potential abatement. I met up with a film-critic friend and we guessed at how long it would take the Korean film industry to come up with a Sewol-themed major motion picture, and more to the point, who exactly would make it. “I’m afraid it’ll be someone like Kang Je-gyu,” he said, naming the director of technically accomplished but ham-fisted blockbusters like Shiri (쉬리), an ersatz Bruce Willis-type action movie about the hunt for a North Korean assassin, and Korean War drama Taegukgi (태극기 휘날리며). Neither of us, fair to say, had very high hopes.

Five years after the ship sank, the big Sewol film has arrived. Birthday (생일) comes directed not by the likes of Kang but Lee Jong-un, a first-timer with Sewol credentials: she produced 2017’s Friends: Hidden Sorrow (친구들: 숨어있는 슬픔), one of several documentaries about the disaster that have come out so far, and participated in the campaign to fund another, Healing the Wounds with the Sewol Generation (세월호 세대와 함께 상처를 치유하다). Had it been up to me to choose the director for a story based on an event widely seen as the nation’s failure to protect its own children, I might have gone with Lee Chang-dong, whose filmography attests to an interest in the trauma his homeland inflicts on itself through its treatment of young people. But one could see Lee Jong-un, who worked as an assistant director on Lee Chang-dong’s 2010 film Poetry (시) and is now described as his protégé, as the next best thing.

Birthday counts Lee Chang-dong as one if its producers, and on some level feels as if it takes place in his cinematic reality. Starring as Jung-il and Soon-nam, a husband and wife whose teenage son died on the Sewol, are Sol Kyung-gu and Jeon Do-yeon, the former having previously appeared in Lee’s Oasis (오아시스) as a mentally disabled man who falls for a physically disabled woman, and the latter having previously appeared in his Secret Sunshine (밀양) as another mother whose young son is killed. Like her mentor, who shows impressive restraint even when dealing with the most harrowing subject matter, Lee Jong-un doesn’t go overboard — an expression I hesitate to use in this context, but one that fits the fears many must have had about the treatment of the Sewol disaster in a cinematic culture that pushes emotions to melodramatic heights as a matter of course.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.