In the early hours of the morning on April 16th 2014, followed by heart-wrenching days of rescue, the hearts of the South Korean nation broke as one as the ferry MV Sewol sank and claimed the lives of 304 passengers and crew members. The tragedy was made worse as 250 of the victims were juniors of Danwon High School – only 75 students of the junior class survived. While the entire South Korea mourned the loss of lives and demanded some kind of justice to be served, an entire community of parents, siblings and fellow students faced pain beyond belief at the emptiness that was left behind by their beloved family members and friends.


Photo © Next Entertainment World

The shock and the loss were so great that its impact can still be felt even today, five years after that fateful Wednesday. Numerous theories about the cause and aftermath of the event have previously been explored by a handful of documentaries, but the topic itself was a source of so much pain that feature filmmakers steered well clear of it. But in the midst of the community itself, there was a filmmaker who volunteered to offer her support to the mourning families who had to find the strength to keep on living, and eventually, she decided – with the families’ support – to tell their story through the mirror of fiction.


Photo © Next Entertainment World

Lee Jong-un’s Birthday is set three years after the event. Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) is still struggling to deal with the grief of losing her teenage son, Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young), to Sewol, while also trying to raise her young daughter, Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min); it seems that Ye-sol has taken a second seat to Su-ho’s memory. Soon-nam’s fragile existence is further shaken with the return of her absentee husband, Jung-il (Sul Kyung-gu), who was not only out of the country at the time of the tragedy and its aftermath, but seems to be the cause for the poor financial situation of the family. It is unclear at first why Jung-il did not return for his son’s memorial service, hasn’t been supporting his family and has only returned now, especially since his own grief, as well since his loss of direction on what to do next, are blatantly obvious. Even though Soon-nam refuses any kind of contact and even presents Jung-il with divorce papers, he manages to connect with his daughter and, after being approached by a local support group, gives them permission to organize a memorial ceremony for Su-ho’s upcoming birthday anniversary, which expands the already large divide between Soon-nam and himself; she want’s to keep both pain and the memories to herself.


Photo © Next Entertainment World

It is all about the process of grief and the conflict between holding on to the pain and letting go in order to move on, even if only inch by painful inch. Lee Jong-un’s intent in making this film is obvious and noble, commemorating not only those who died, but also giving space and face to those who have to live on. Her wish to help wash the pain away enough to offer those affected the space to embrace their pain and start healing is present in every scene of the film as is her bravery to even take this painful topic on. But this does not make Birthday flawless.

One of the more obvious slips is the characterisation of Jung-il. The plot line of him being absent because he was imprisoned in Vietnam seems redundant at best – it brings nothing to the story and overall impact would have been the same if the reasoning for his absence was less dramatic.


Photo © Next Entertainment World

The film culminates with a 30-minute scene where Su-ho’s birthday is commemorated by not only his family, but his classmates, classmates’ parents and his friends, with the clear intent of offering some kind of catharsis, both to all the characters and the viewers themselves. In a way, it is successful – it doesn’t bring the viewers just to tears, but to sobs, and yet, there is still an underlining feeling that the quest to bring out emotions is a tad too forced. The last scene also highlights another problem. While his mischievous nature is hinted at, Su-ho is (throughout the film) portrayed as the perfect, ideal child, brother and friend who ended his life as a hero, which takes away a chunk of realism. The ending would have perhaps had an even better emotional impact if the life of the fictional child that represents many of the actual victims was portrayed with him being a tiny little bit more flawed, but still every bit as precious.


Photo © Next Entertainment World

On the other hand, the professional level of the film is undeniable, especially since it seems to have been made by the alumni of Lee Chang-dong’s filmography. Lee Jong-un was his AD during Poetry, Jeon Do-yeon won Best Actress in Cannes for the role in Lee’s Secret Sunshine and Sol Kyung-gu headlined Lee’s Oasis and Peppermint Candy. It comes as no surprise that Lee Chang-dong himself is named as one of the film’s three producers, even if the position turned out to be more honorary than not. But big names aside, true talent was what was necessary to make this production stand and both Jeon and Sol delivered on their parts. Jeon Do-yeon especially hit the right spots with her no-holds-barred portrayal of the many faces of a grieving mother, including those that are more on the selfish side.


Photo © Next Entertainment World

Birthday has been, from its conception, a risky project. It would have easily ventured too far into a melodrama, or missed its key points. The film also carries the burden of being the first feature to deal with a sensitive topic. With Lee Jong-un’s personal attachment to the project, she managed to avoid many traps that someone less involved would have stepped into, but at the same time, that same personal investment was bound to cost her on a point or two. Even so, it is safe to say that Birthday turned out to be a film that manages to be all that a Sewol-themed film can be at this very moment in time.

Rating: 4-stars

Written by Sanja Struna

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Asian Cinema, Film, Film events and festivals, Korean Cinema