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The aftermath of a maritime disaster and its impact on a single family lies at the heart of debuting feature director Lee Jong-un’s Birthday, a deliberate and carefully considered drama based loosely on the South Korean Sewol ferry sinking of 2014. The boat that sank with nearly 500 mostly school kids on board was the catalyst for mass protests and furious demands for accountability directed at the government, the Coast Guard and the ferry’s owner/operator. A documentary about the sinking famously led to censorship issues for the Busan International Film Festival, which played the doc and then, perhaps coincidentally, saw its funding slashed.
Amid the political ruckus were over 300 families that lost children on what should have been a routine field trip, and that is the focus of Birthday. A slow-burn, word-of-mouth art house hit at home in Korea, Birthday looks to be well positioned for an extended festival run following its international debut at Udine at the end of April. Strong production values, mature handling of sensitive material, news headline subject matter and a credit for producer Lee Chang-dong (Burning) are the ingredients for a cocktail that could lead to a limited release in overseas markets and most assuredly a wider one in Asia-Pacific.
Birthday begins roughly three years after the Sewol went down, taking teenaged Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young) with it. In the time since his death, his mother Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) has struggled to get past her crushing grief, even though she has a young daughter, Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min), to care for. She’s also broke, having spent most of her money paying for lawyers to defend her husband, Jung-il, off in Vietnam, in a corporate negligence case. When Jung-il (Sul Kyung-gu, Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis, Public Enemy) returns to Korea, his presence is less of a comfort to Soon-nam as it is a bitter reminder that Su-ho is dead and that Jung-il was not there to support Soon-nam when she needed it. To make matters worse, as the anniversary of the disaster approaches along with Su-ho’s birthday, Jung-il wants to memorialize his son along with a local support group, something Soon-nam is absolutely not open to.
The bulk of the film focuses on the tug-of-war between Soon-nam and Jung-il’s opposing ideas of how to move ahead with their lives in the lead-up to those dates. Jung-il thinks it best to reconnect with the borderline-neglected Ye-sol, accept and own their loss and carry on. Soon-nam prefers to compartmentalize and bring her life to a screeching halt at a moment where she can pretend Su-ho might still be alive. Jeon and Sul develop a believable, and intensely moving, dynamic that revolves around each of them coming at the birthday from different perspectives as a result. The final, nearly 30-minute birthday party (she caves and attends, no spoiler there) that kicks off the third act is, unsurprisingly, a five-hankie passage, in no rush to wrap up and perfectly wiling to let the tears flow.
Writer-director Lee worked as an AD on producer Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, and it’s easy to see what attracted the latter to the film. Birthday is precisely the kind of warts-and-all examination of human nature that defines Lee’s career, and is composed entirely of the difficult moments that are often glossed over for more palatable, unchallenging observations. As Soon-nam, Jeon, who starred in Lee Chang-dong’s grueling Secret Sunshine, does the heavy lifting as an only fitfully sympathetic character. It’s rare a film about a grieving mother makes her anything less than saintly, but Jeon embraces the more unsavory aspects of grief: the tendency to alienate others, a refusal to let others grieve and remember in their own ways and the disruptive nature of pain for those around us — regardless of how icy that may seem. Soon-nam’s neighbor’s selflessness in her support is matched by her daughter’s frustration at Soon-nam’s protracted and loud demonstrations of her sorrow. The instinct to tell Soon-nam to knock off the histrionics may be awful, but it is a very real aspect of grief that often goes unaddressed.
Birthday is relatively low-key considering its emotionalism, and is most affecting in its quietest moments, almost defiantly so. Jung-il finding Su-ho’s empty passport and silently lamenting the fact his son will never see the world is far more wrenching than when he treks to the airport and publicly begs for a stamp. The absence that results in Jung-il’s crippling inability to comfort his wife when she needs it and Soon-nam beating herself up for missing a phone call from Su-ho on that fateful day are among the standout moments that effortlessly illuminate the rage, sadness, guilt and uncertainty the parents feel. Less successful is the film’s hagiography (Su-ho was the perfect son, of course) and an ever so vaguely supernatural element wherein a flickering kitchen light may or may not be Su-ho. A sensitive, thoughtful drama about coping with loss, Birthday doesn’t need a specter to find its catharsis.
Production companies: Nowfilm, Red Peter Films, Pine House Film
Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Sul Kyung-gu, Kim Bo-min, Yoon Chan-young, Kim Su-jin, Lee Bong-ryu, Park Jong-hwan, Kwan So-hyeon, Sung Yu-bin, Tang Jun-sang, Shin Mun-sung
Director-screenwriter: Lee Jong-un
Producers: Lee Jun-dong, Lee Dongha, Lee Chang-dong
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Jo Young-gyu
Production designer: Lee Mok-won
Costume designer: Kim Jeong-won
Editor: Shin Min-jin
Music: Lee Jae-jin
World sales: Contents Panda
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