"Stop coming here! You have no right to be here. What did you do while everything happened?
You call yourself a dad? You tried to carry Ye-sol into the sea? She can't even get into the bathtub!
You're no dad!..."


Jung-il (Sol Kyung-gu) returns to Korea after a prolonged period working abroad to not only find his wife, Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon), avoiding him and virtually refusing to see or indeed talk to him but also discover she has had divorce papers drawn up which she’s ready to file. Unwelcome in his own home, he instead stays with his sister nearby, enlisting her help to try to reconnect with his young daughter, Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min), much to Soon-nam's largely unspoken exasperation.
For, she refuses to forgive Jung-il for being overseas when their son, Su-ho (Yoon Chang-young), was killed in the Sewol ferry disaster, at least in part holding him responsible for his death as the boy was travelling to visit his father when the tragedy happened and she has no interest whatsoever in talking about her feelings of blame, guilt and indeed despair with anyone, let alone him.
However, with friends, neighbours and a victim support group planning a memorial/remembrance get-together for what would have been Su-ho's next birthday – against Soon-nam’s express wishes – those feelings begin to bubble towards the surface looking increasingly likely to be finally and vehemently vocalised for any and all to hear...


Melodrama has long been a mainstay of Korean cinema since the years and decades when extreme censorship came down hard on any narrative critiquing politics, criticising the Korean Government, featuring overt sexuality, depicting alternative lifestyles deemed as inherently immoral, and the like – specific taboo subject matters being at least partly dependent on the regime in power at any particular time. The feeling that melodrama by its very nature was one of the few genres relatively safe from censor scissors or outright banning (or at least as safe as any genre could be) pervaded and entered the Korean cinema zeitgeist, if you will, to the extent it still holds true in today’s more liberal times, certainly for fans of classic Korean films at the very least. As such, the fact that Birthday is unashamed in ultimately showing itself to a melodrama of the highest order (and in this case that is a strength) while detailing a story based around a true life tragedy that garnered severe criticism of political and governmental action, or inaction, and brought protests beyond what would normally be deemed public outcry may on the surface seem to be somewhat of a dichotomy. However, while there are passing references to the ferry disaster of a political or societal bent (different attitudes to and arguments over victim compensation; soap box calls for petition signatures aimed at forcing the Government to make greater efforts to find victim bodies still missing and raise the ferry from the murky depths) these are elements of the story only rather than being at its core.
For Birthday is far more an intimate, personal dissection of the soul-wrenching pain and paralysing psychological scars that tragic and unnecessary loss brings to those still living and (from their perspective) left behind - be they family, friends or even simply disaster survivors - with emotionality, catharsis and ultimately healing as its raisons d'être and as such Birthday not only fits into melodrama like a proverbial hand in glove but also absolutely sets that genre as the one and only that could adequately and effectively serve the narrative's thematics, both powerfully and tear-inducingly so.

Su-ho's death has turned his parents’ physical separation into a gaping emotional rift and Soon-nam especially has internalised her grief taking it to her very core, choosing to suffer alone and in keeping Jung-il beyond arms length pushing him to do the same. Humans by their very nature can lapse all too easily into selfishness, thoughtless and even seemingly uncaring action when in a solitary bubble of problems and/or grief and Birthday gives repeated implications of just that for both Soon-nam and Jung-il.
For example: Soon-nam has continued to buy clothing for Su-ho since his death and on bringing home a new coat to hang on his bedroom wall she excitedly shows it to her young daughter who straight away looks into the bag it came in to see what’s been bought for her, only to find the bag empty; or consider Jung-il accompanying little Ye-sol on a school trip to the beach where, when she refuses to enter the sea on being beckoned by a teacher, he picks her up and starts to carry her in, not having even taken the time to find out that her brother’s drowning has made her so scared of water that she won’t even get into a bathtub.
Not only that, but while Soon-nam’s decision not to share her pain with those around her is in an effort to even carry on from day to day, it too is steeped in self-destructive selfishness (even if she doesn’t realise it herself) for in not doing so her belief that no-one understands what she’s going through is left unchallenged, leaving her closed to even the possibility (and indeed fact) that others are in as legitimate pain because of Su-ho’s death in spite of their bond to the dead boy not being as close as familial. That in a way could be said to be somewhat disrespectful to Su-ho and his importance to those he was close to in life, especially when his importance to his mother (the other side of the same coin) is absolutely everything to her.

The deeply moving and poignant conclusion to the film’s narrative (all set in a single room) runs with this idea, extending it to resolutely state that only by embracing the pain of others and sharing her own can Soon-nam have any chance of healing, in the process not only paying suitable respect to the memory of her son but also being heartened and lifted by an understanding of the respect he earned in life from those around him.
That is an ultimate mission statement as worthy as any, Su-ho’s life from the perspective of those he touched standing as a fitting tribute to each and every one of the tragic victims of the Sewol ferry disaster.

The specifics of the disaster are touched on only briefly (mainly through dialogue from a young woman who survived). As far as I’m concerned, that is a wise move on the part of director Lee Jung-un firstly because emotion is far more important to Birthday than facts and figures and sidestepping them ensures there’s nothing to interrupt the narrative flow and secondly there has been so much coverage of the event itself across a plethora of media platforms that there’s not a single Korean, I reckon, who isn’t wholly familiar with the intricacies of the tragedy, so in a personal and human based story further overview detailing simply isn’t necessary. For international viewers, even vague knowledge of the ferry disaster is enough to get everything the director intended from the film and even those with no knowledge of Sewol whatsoever will get sufficient information from the narrative to do the same.

Birthday’s pace is meticulously measured, building gently to allow every narrative nuance adequate time to really count in terms of audience immersion. Add to that the fact that layers of Soon-nam’s psyche are gradually unveiled going deeper into the mindset of a female in excruciating emotional pain and I for one was reminded of the work of director Lee Chang-dong on more than one occasion, both generally and specifically (one scene in particular almost cannot fail to bring Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine to the minds of Korean film fans). Lee Chang-dong was in fact Birthday’s producer so I assume he too felt an empathy to the narrative and Lee Jong-un's directorial style (she previously worked in the directing department on Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry). Considering the fact that Birthday is Lee Jong-un's debut feature, all of the above really can be taken as quite an accolade and certainly raises my anticipation for her ongoing career and excitement for her next project.


Unashamedly a tear-inducing melodrama, Birthday is a powerful film that ultimately stands as a tribute to each and every one of the innocent victims of the tragic Sewol ferry disaster and indeed those left in abject despair by their loss.


BIRTHDAY (생일) / 2019
Director: Lee Jong-un
Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Sol Kyung-gu, Kim Bo-min


All images © Next Entertainment World
Review © Paul Quinn