‘The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol’: LAAPFF Review

Courtesy of Cinema Dal
This investigative account liberally spreads blame for the incident

Last year’s tragic South Korean ferry disaster and its aftermath are revealed in raw detail

Barely a year after the April 16, 2014 sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol and the deaths of more than 300 passengers aboard, mostly high school students, Hae-ryong Ahn and Lee Sang-ho’s revealing documentary made its US debut very much under the radar at last month’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

When the film world-premiered at the Busan International Film Festival last year it was originally titled Diving Bell and the booking provoked outrage and demands for cancellation from some victims’ families, but the programmers held firm to their artistic principals, supported by a coalition of local filmmakers. The screening sold out and the film proved a box office sensation in subsequent release, although the BIFF controversy demonstrated that the disaster remains an extremely combustible topic in South Korea. Overseas, however, the issues surrounding the accident are far less familiar, making digital platforms the best options for reaching audiences beyond festival venues. 

In the hasty investigation that followed the tragedy, national authorities and maritime experts attributed the sinking of the Sewol to a series of avoidable operational and navigational errors that caused the shop to capsize and cost the lives of almost an entire high school junior class, as the captain and his immediate subordinates abandoned ship. While the ferry was still afloat in the aftermath of the accident however, the focus rested entirely on a haphazardly organized rescue operation belatedly led by the Korea Coast Guard.

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Independent investigative journalist and co-director Lee Sang-ho arrived early on the scene at Paengmok-hang port and quickly concluded that the government was stonewalling the media, trickling out what he described as inaccurate and misleading information. So Lee went looking for an alternative perspective and discovered Lee Jong-in of Alpha Diving Technology, the private operator of a diving bell, a potentially crucial piece of equipment. Lee volunteered his device, an elongated, bell-shaped steel chamber that allows several divers to operate at depth with the aid of a topside air supply, to assist with the search and recovery of bodies still trapped in the sunken ferry.

Alpha’s Lee encountered a cold reception from the Coast Guard however, which threw up repeated roadblocks preventing the deployment of the diving bell. Operating at his own expense, Lee was finally forced to cancel his attempt to participate in the rescue mission and depart the scene, only to be called back to the port by government authorities at the insistence of victims’ families. When he encountered similar resistance on his return, however, the stage was set for high-stakes confrontation.

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Journalist Lee Sang-ho has been widely criticized for bias in reporting coverage of the ferry disaster and indeed he independently took on the documentary project along with filmmaker Hae-ryong Ahn after his dismissal from national broadcaster MBC, allegedly for becoming too personally involved in the initial stages of the incident. His apparent zeal for confronting government officials, sympathy for the families of passengers and support for deployment of the diving bell quickly remove any appearance of professional objectivity.

This clear passion for accountability and his hard-charging reporting style, however, ultimately earned Lee the trust of a group of family members, as well as Alpha Diving’s Lee, who emerges as one of the more clear-headed and committed rescue operators. The film’s often rough DIY production quality makes a virtue out of necessity, substituting galvanizing immediacy in place of polished presentation, although the editing and subtitling may warrant additional tweaking prior to wider release.

Production company: Cinema Dal

Directors: Ahn Hae-ryong, Lee Sang-ho

Producer:  Kim Yong-woo

Director of photography: Ahn Hae-ryong

Editors: Ahn Hae-ryong, Lee Sang-ho

No rating, 77 minutes