Birthday (Saeng-il) (2019)

Text of my onstage introduction to Birthday (Saeng-il), which screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2019

On the morning of 16 April, 2014, an 18-year-old, overladen ferry named the MV Sewol was travelling from Incheon to Jeju, when it listed heavily while making a course adjustment and started rapidly taking on water as it tilted and eventually capsized. Passengers were repeatedly instructed to stay put in their cabins, even as many of the crew, including the captain, were the first to abandon ship, and first to be rescued. The Sewol took two and a half hours to sink. Of the 476 people originally on board, 304 died, including 250 high school students. More of the survivors were rescued by private vessels than by the Coast Guard, even though the Coast Guard was first at the scene.

A lax regulatory system, safety violation by the ferry’s owners and crew, mistakes made by the Coast Guard in the rescue operation, initial misreports (apparently official) of the number of fatalities, and a government that constantly tried to downplay the event and seemed more concerned with covering its own tracks than with acknowledging errors and grieving the dead – all these factors made the Sewol disaster resonate through every echelon of the Korean state. The sinking of the Sewol has become, not unlike the Grenfell Tower disaster here, a measure of national failure, and a rallying point for political anger. 

It has emerged that the then President Park Geun-hye had compiled a blacklist of artists who would be refused any kind of government acknowledgement or sponsorship. The motivation for this blacklist, at least at first, was to censor any artists who commemorated the Sewol victims. Perhaps the state’s hostility to critical public debate about the accident was best encapsulated when, in late 2014, the Busan Film Festival programmed a screening of Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong’s highly critical documentary Diving Bell: The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, only for Busan’s mayor to try to have the film removed from the festival. 

There have since been other documentary features focused on the tragedy, most notably Matthew Root and Neil George’s After the Sewol (2016) – but the film you are going to see tonight is the first fictive feature to respond directly to the disaster, which is still very much a raw wound in the Korean consciousness. Rest assured, Birthday (Saeng-il) is no Titanic. This is not some tacky, tasteless attempt to reconstruct what happened on board the stricken vessel. Rather, as its very title implies, Birthday is concerned with aftermath and the marking of anniversaries, as one family broken by the Sewol incident still struggles years later to reconcile itself to what happened, to reintegrate itself, and to find its own way to commemorate the dead.

This is the feature debut of writer/director Lee Jong-un, who has previously worked on Lee Chang-dong‘s Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2009). Lee Chang-dong also serves as a producer here, while his regular actor Sol Kyung-gu (Peppermint Candy, 1999; Oasis, 2002) stars as a father whose eight year absence from his family mirrors the void left by their teenaged son, who sank with the ferry. So Birthday is a story of absence and ghosts – and as director Lee delicately traces the sense of guilt and recrimination in this fracturing household, she is also modulating the grief of a nation still haunted by tragedy, and still finding ways to exorcise its ghosts. 

Korean cinema often deals with han, that deep-seated sense of grievance and victimhood that is part of the national character. Yet the characters in this film refuse to work through their grief in the conventional ways. For this reason, although Birthday is formally a kind of domestic melodrama, it too rejects the traditional tropes and conventions of its own genre. The result is something idiosyncratic and original, where the characters’ feelings seem all the more real precisely for not conforming to cinematic cliché. I hope you enjoy it.

© Anton Bitel