Private grief and public mourning are examined in “Birthday,” a deeply moving drama about a fractured family attempting to get on with life following the death of their son in the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy. Set two years after the incident, “Birthday” marks an auspicious debut for writer-director Lee Jong-un, and is superbly performed by lead actors Jeon Do-yeon (“Secret Sunshine”) and Sol Kyung-gu. This finely calibrated essay on loss and remembrance grossed an impressive $8.2 million locally in April and could attract the attention of festival programmers and specialty distributors following recent screenings at the Vancouver and Busan film fests.
One of the most traumatic events in South Korean history, the Sewol ferry sinking claimed over 300 lives, mostly teenage school students, and played a role in the 2017 downfall of President Park Gyeun-hye. The corruption, incompetence and political bungling that contributed to the shocking death toll has been chronicled in numerous dramas and documentaries, including Lee Sang-ho’s inflammatory “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol,” which triggered a long-running crisis at the Busan film festival following its 2014 screening. (Lee’s followup doc, “President’s 7 Hours,” launched at Busan this year.)
“Birthday” takes a very different approach from most other films on the subject. Lee, a protégé of “Burning” director Lee Chang-dong (who serves here as a producer), is not much concerned with scandal or politics. Such matters are only briefly mentioned when essential to story and character development. Her focus is tightly fixed on the almost unimaginable sorrow of parents losing a son and a young girl losing her adored big brother.
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The film’s steady accumulation of emotional heft begins with father Jung-il (Sol) returning to Seoul following a three-year stint working in Vietnam. Jung-il was absent when son Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young) drowned, and has hardly exchanged a word with wife Soon-nam (Jeon) since that terrible day. The couple’s elementary school-aged daughter, Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min, outstanding), barely recognizes her father when he suddenly shows up.
The agony of loss is most powerfully seen on the face of Soon-nam. An emotional blank drifting mechanically through her job as a supermarket cashier, Soon-nam continues to buy clothes for Su-ho and “talks” to him in his bedroom. Her dead-eyed reaction to Jung-il’s return is to request his signature on divorce papers.
From this bleak picture of complete communication breakdown and inability to express feelings, Lee charts the gradual re-establishment of family trust. With Su-ho’s birthday approaching, Jung-il wants his wife and daughter to participate in a remembrance gathering organized by kind-hearted neighbor Mrs. Kim (Kim Su-jin) and Mr. Lee (Park Jong-hwan), convenor of a Sewol victims’ support network. Soon-nam’s disdain for organized bereavement is potently displayed in her first contact with the group, which regularly meets in public places. As talk turns to legal proceedings and financial compensation, Soon-nam reacts angrily to what she feels is pressure to grieve in a manner that conforms to everyone else’s.
Here, and in every other aspect of her delicate and perceptive screenplay, Lee does not judge anyone. Her message is that sorrow and grief, particularly where the death of children is concerned, need to take their own course, however deep and shattering, before any possible path to healing can emerge. This feeling is especially well conveyed in a sequence showing the normally mild-mannered Jung-il desperately begging an immigration official to place a stamp in Su-ho’s passport as a way to somehow fulfill his son’s dream of traveling abroad one day.
Flawlessly performed by the entire cast and cathartic without ever being overtly manipulative, “Birthday” earns every single tear that audiences will shed. Crucially, it’s far from a nonstop gloomfest. Lovely, natural humor is incorporated throughout, and there are many moments of joy as Jung-il, Soon-nam and Ye-sol slowly get to know each other again.
Cinematographer Cho Yong-kyu’s outstanding compositions play a major role in delivering the film’s knockout moments. When characters speak of suffering and anguish they are rarely seen in closeup. Other people’s faces are constantly in foregrounds and backgrounds, listening and reacting. The effect is to invite audiences into this difficult emotional space and feel empathy for those who’ve lost so much. Shin Min-kyung’s expertly paced editing and Lee Jae-jin’s gentle piano and strings-based score also make valuable contributions to the film’s deep and lasting impact.