Far East Festival to Open With Korean Ferry Disaster Drama 'Birthday'

Far East Film Festival

The film is produced by South Korean master Lee Chang-dong and directed by his protege Lee Jong-un.

Birthday, the hotly anticipated South Korean drama about the aftermath of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, is set to get its international premiere as the opening title of the 21st Far East Film Festival, running April 26-May 4 in the northern Italian city of Udine.

South Korea was rocked to the core by the tragic sinking of the MV Sewol Ferry off the country's southern coast in April 2014. The disaster killed 304 passengers and crew, many of them school children who were aboard the vessel for a field trip. The incident plunged South Korea into a series of political crises and inspired several critical documentaries on the subject.

Birthday is the first South Korean dramatic film to explore the event. Described by FEFF as an "anatomy of pain," the film centers on a fictional middle class Korean family shattered by the loss of their eldest son in the accident — "two parents who are no longer able to communicate with each other, a daughter to love despite everything, and an absence to learn to accept," reads the festival's official summary.

Birthday is produced by master Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong — a revered figure on the festival circuit thanks to his dramatically searing, intellectual dramas, such as Burning (2018) and Poetry (2010), both winners of Cannes' Critics Prize — and it is directed by newcomer Lee Jong-un, who served as a first assistant director on Lee Chang-dong's Poetry.

Birthday stars Jeon Do-yeon, who won the best actress prize at Cannes in 2007 for her performance in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine, and fellow Lee regular Sol Kyung-gu.

The film is anxiously awaited in South Korea, where it will get its domestic premiere on April 3 — exactly five years after the real-life tragedy.

Describing Birthday and the rationale behind its selection, FEFF organizers said: "Lee Jong-un constructs an uncompromising narrative — suffering speaks the language of petit-bourgeois everyday life, of normality without normality, and has no room for facile cinematographic manipulation."

The 2014 edition of FEFF opened as the events surrounding the Sewol Ferry disaster were still unfolding. Organizers dedicated that year's edition of the Italian festival to the memory of the Sewol's victims. "FEFF 2019 will once again pay homage to Korea and to that human, political and social wound which has been so hard to heal," Udine's organizers said in a statement Friday.

Entering its 21st edition this year, Udine's Far East Film Festival is Europe's only film event dedicated exclusively to East Asian popular cinema. Set in the northeastern Italian city of 100,000, the fest balances its program with both popular commercial cinema and festival favorites from across the East Asian region, along with retrospectives, educational initiatives and an emerging film market. Despite its relatively small size, the event is known to pull big names from the Asian industry, thanks to longstanding relationships with talent.

FEFF organizers previously announced that Hong Kong actor icon Anthony Wong would receive the festival's honorary Golden Mulberry Award for outstanding career achievement this year. Best known for his starring roles in Hong Kong crime classics like Johnnie To's The Mission and Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's cult classic Infernal Affairs, Wong was most recently seen in Oliver Siu Kuen Chan's Still Human, which FEFF will screen this year along with Wong's acting debut, My Name Ain’t Suzie.

Fellow Hong Kong filmmaker Fruit Chan will also be attending Udine this year. The festival will give the director's latest work, Three Husbands, its European premiere. The festival describes the film, which premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival late last year, as a "bold and disturbing low-budget movie that brings together sex and social satire and confirms the eternally rebellious and inspired vision of its director."

The Far East Film Festival is expected to announce the remainder of its 2019 lineup in the coming weeks.