A documentary made in the immediate aftermath of a national trauma typically favors heightened immediacy over deeper analysis, and whatever the missteps and limitations of its guerrilla-style approach, “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” brings impressive urgency and plenty of outrage to bear on a tragedy that will demand continued scrutiny in years to come. Emerging barely six months after the South Korean ferry disaster that claimed the lives of more than 300 passengers in April, this raw, ragged, controversy-stirring item never pretends to take a comprehensive view of its complex subject, instead using a narrow account of one man’s stonewalled rescue efforts to pry open a small, infuriating window on the staggering levels of government incompetence and media collusion at work.
Audience responses were understandably emotional following the film’s high-security Busan world premiere, which went off without a hitch despite angry protests by the families of some victims, and despite city mayor and fest chairman Seo Byung-soo’s attempt to pull the pic from the festival lineup. Unsurprisingly for an unapologetic work of agenda filmmaking that seeks to expose deep-seated institutional cluelessness and corruption, “Truth” faces an uphill battle in the search for official distribution channels at home. Outside Korea, festivals and broadcasters should be willing to offer safe harbor, aiding the stated intention of directors Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong to draw as much international attention to the incident as possible.
The film’s vastly superior, less self-righteous Korean title translates as “Diving Bell,” a reference to the three-ton, cable-suspended chamber used to facilitate extended dives — a piece of equipment that became an unexpected focal point for public outrage following the sinking of the MV Sewol on April 16. According to Lee Jong-in, head of Alpha Diving Corp. and one of the documentary’s two chief subjects, a diving bell, if successfully used, would supply enough air and protection to enable divers to work for 20 hours straight, and might well have done more to minimize casualties than the Korea Coast Guard managed with its volunteer divers.
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Whether or not that assertion was true feels less significant than the manner in which the Coast Guard and other official bodies frustrated Lee Jong-in’s proposal at every turn, abetted by a mainstream media that smeared him as an opportunist who was merely delaying the official rescue effort. But contrary to news reports exaggerating the scale and commitment of that effort, those authorized responders proved disorganized and ineffectual from the start, and the film persuasively argues that the government compounded ineptitude with arrogance, unwilling to allow for the possibility that the outsiders might prevail and show up their lack of preparation and follow-through.
Leading the charge is the film’s other key subject, co-helmer Lee Sang-ho himself, a renegade TV journalist and self-styled Michael Moore type who is introduced cheerfully ambushing government officials with inconvenient questions, and who seems to spend as much time in front of the camera as he does behind it. It’s a heavy-handed, not entirely successful choice, and there are moments when “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” almost comes to resemble a buddy comedy-actioner of sorts, pairing Lee the valiant public crusader and Lee the principled rescue worker in a way that can feel semi-staged for the camera. Yet for all Lee Sang-ho’s muckraking, self-aggrandizing swagger, there’s no denying his conviction or common sense when he confronts the authorities at their meeting with the victims’ families (nine days after the incident, with 196 passengers still missing), and charges them with actively stifling efforts that might have saved, and might yet save, human lives.
In the months since the disaster, numerous story angles have emerged that go mostly unexplored here: the business-driven calculations that likely led to the Sewol’s sinking; the manhunt for Yoo Byung-eon, the tycoon and religious leader whose precipitating role in the disaster would merit a documentary of its own; the captain and crew members who made their way to safety, abandoning their passengers to their fate; and above all, the fact that 250 of the 304 victims were high-school students, whose heartrending farewells to their parents via text messages and cell-phone videos lent the tragedy a uniquely haunting and human dimension. Until a closing-credits scene that shows Lee Sang-ho and a grieving father breaking down on camera, the filmmakers avoid gratuitously tapping into this element, clearly aware of the emotional pull of their material, as well as the need to zero in on the narrative they’ve chosen.
Skillfully whittled down (by editor Jin Hyo-min) from a clearly massive amount of footage to a brisk and compelling 77 minutes, “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” covers the repeated clashes between Lee Jong-in and the authorities over the agonizing 11-day stretch between April 20 and May 16. It’s a struggle that takes on Sisyphean proportions as the Coast Guard uses every tactic and lame excuse at their disposal to keep the Alpha crew from dropping anchor, while most journalists dismiss the diving bell as a failure before it’s even been deployed. In recounting their experiences, neither of the two Lees proves immune to a measure of exaggeration or paranoia (whether the government really cut their air hose, as alleged here, remains very much open to debate). But for the most part the filmmakers lay out the details of this tense, clock-ticking procedural with a propulsive clarity that lends weight and credibility to their moral indignation.
The non-nautically minded will learn an awful lot here about the physics of diving and the logistics of search and rescue; the up-close footage of the Alpha teams inside the diving bell, their heads visible above the water line as they eat, talk and carry on their work, is particularly fascinating. The sometimes over-insistent musical accompaniment feels like a rare misstep in a film that, in most other respects, resists the urge to go for the viewer’s jugular.