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Birthday (DVD) (Korea Version)
Sol Kyung Gu (Actor) | Jeon Do Yeon (Actor) | Park Jong Hwan (Actor) | Tang Joon Sang (Actor)
Birthday (DVD) (Korea Version)
This professional review refers to Birthday (DVD) (Korea Version)

In 2014, the MV Sewol sank during a voyage from Incheon to Jeju. The ferry disaster left 304 people dead, including 250 students from the same high school, and set off widespread public condemnation of the ferry operator, regulators and president Park Geun Hye.

However, Birthday is not a film about the accident itself or the pursuit for accountability. In fact, it didn't even necessarily have to be about the Sewol disaster. Like Robert Redford's Ordinary People and Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, Birthday is equally effective as an intimate story about the lingering psychological scars that remain in one family long after the trauma.

Five years have passed since Soon Nam (Jeon Do Yeon) lost her teenage son, Su Ho, in the Sewol disaster. She carries on with her daily life, working and caring for her young daughter. Soon Nam keeps her memories of Su Ho always within reach, but she appears to have moved on from her grief in her own way.

That façade of peace is upended when her estranged husband, Jung Il (Sol Kyung Gu), returns to Korea and tries to enter his family's life again. Jung Il was working in Vietnam when the Sewol sank (the real reason for his absence is revealed later on), which means he's starting the true mourning process five years late. Jung Il's search for his own catharsis, which he believes can be achieved by properly memorializing Su Ho on his birthday, pushes Soon Nam over the edge once more.

Writer-director Lee Jong Un worked for director Lee Chang Dong on Secret Sunshine and Poetry before making her directorial debut with Birthday, and his influence is apparent in the film's humanized and quietly devastating depiction of grief (Lee is a producer on this film as well). Drawing from her observations as a volunteer at an organization for bereaved families of Sewol victims, Lee earns her character's tears with small moments that serve as sad reminders of the family's loss, from an awkward pause of realization during a memorial picnic for bereaved families to Jung Il finding his late son's blank passport.

While lesser filmmakers would focus on wringing emotional outbursts from their actors, Lee examines the psychology of her characters during their search for catharsis with great depth and complexity. Lee doesn't include a single flashback in the film, making the audience share the feeling of Su Ho's physical absence with her characters. The extended half-hour finale will hit viewers like a ton of bricks, but it's not because everyone in the scene is crying their eyes out; it's because we, too, can feel the tragedy of his loss as we finally see glimpses of his life through photos and memories.

Yet, the finale is also one that carries hope. Lee's story is not about clinging to loss, but rather finding a way to move on by facing the loss head-on. The film will likely leave anyone with a beating heart in tears by its conclusion, though they will not be tears of pity but rather tears of psychological release. Birthday is cinema as collective trauma therapy for a society that has long been reluctant to deal with mental health issues. For that reason alone, it's one of the most important films of the year.

by Kevin Ma

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