With her feature debut “Birthday”, young director Lee Jong-un, supported by Chang-dong Lee as her executive producer and Jeon Do-yeon and Sul Kyung-gu in lead roles, brings an emotional story of the Sewol ferry tragedy.
On the morning of April 16, 2014, on a route from Incheon to Jeju in South Korea, the MW Sewol ferry tragically sank. On a ship that carried 476 passengers more than 300 high school students lost their lives.
The film opens up three years after the tragedy, following the lives of a family that lost their son/brother Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young). The boy’s father Jung-il (Sul Kyung-gu) returns to Korea, after a complicated job abroad has gone wrong, to find a dissipated relationship with his wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) and daughter, Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min) awaiting him. To make things worse, Su-ho’s birthday is approaching, and Jung-il would like to be part of a memorial with the help of a support group. But his wife is just not ready for it.
Dealing with tragedy is a difficult and long-term process that can’t be fixed overnight, and remembering and talking about misfortune is part of the healing process. Director Jong-un understands this well, so she takes her time to build up and show the painful reality of the families that lost somebody in an accident.
What seems rather curious is that there are almost no direct mentions of the Sewol ferry incident, in the opening minutes of the film. Instead of the tragedy, the first act of “Birthday” focuses on rebuilding trust between the three protagonists. It all starts with Soon-nam giving out the divorce paperwork to Jung-il, setting us viewers up for the low-key family drama vibes. But soon the silence, unconformable calmness and unusual little habits of characters, build up the sense that something deeper is wrong, rather than what we see on the surface.
As deceased Su-ho’s birthday approaches, we better understand relations inside the depicted family and at that point, trauma opens up within them. All of the moments that at first felt irrelevant, small and off-putting take on a greater meaning. Best examples of this would be Ye-sol’s irrational fear of the water or the way Soon-nam reacts to “ghost” door light which turns on/off randomly in her apartment.
The film also gives us a few side stories about how society deals with Sewol event, – from complete suppression to unreasonable disdain towards victims’ families and their grief. It works perfectly, especially entering the long, emotionally driven third act where the assorted characters all meet up. Every moment of depicted sorrow is meaningful and therefore significant for the overall story of the film.
Jong-un also adds risky but brilliant bits and pieces reflecting on the political situation related to the tragic event. When it comes to downsides, maybe the biggest misstep is that the film has a few scenes (especially Jung-il’s flashbacks) that try to build upon characters and events we already know and understand well.
When it comes to acting, it is hard not to compliment Kyung-gu Sol and young Kim Bo-min. Delivering such an emotionally heavy story with subtle and calm acting really isn’t something that a lot of actors can deliver (especially the ones who are at the start of their carrier). The dynamics between their two characters, and the development from distant strangers to father and daughter are delivered more by performances than by the film script.
But, by saying that, I have to be honest, Do-yeon Jeon, with her performance just steals the spotlight in the climax of the film. As the film reveals a final mystery to us, Do-yeon’s character gets in the center of attention and the actress gives heartbreaking, tears worthy, the performance of an emotionally broken woman. With such an amazing carrier as she has, it is hard to say this is her best role, but it surely might be the one audience will remember for a long time.
Overall, “Birthday” is a relevant, emotionally driven drama in which even the tiniest actions have significance in the bigger picture of living with and facing trauma. Lee, with the help of her amazing cast and crew, gives us a harsh but truthful piece about a people and a society that has just started to deal with a recent tragedy.