REVIEW / DRAMA
120 minutes/Opens today/ 4 Stars
The story: Jung-il (Sul Kyung-gu) returns home to South Korea after a number of years abroad. His wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) has been looking after their young daughter Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min) on her own and does not want to see him. It is gradually revealed that they had an older son, Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young), who died in the Sewol ferry sinking on April 16, 2014. When a support group suggests marking his upcoming birthday, Soon-nam refuses.
The Sewol ferry disaster - in which 304 people perished, many of them high-school students - is still a fresh wound to the South Koreans.
On a visit in May last year, I came across the prominent memorial space to the victims at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul; the memorial tents had just come down only in March.
Depicting the event could easily have seemed exploitative. In an assured and sensitive directorial debut, writer-director Lee Jong-un - assistant director on film-maker Lee Chang-dong's brutal and contemplative Poetry (2010) - wisely chooses not to do so.
There is no need to as it looms over the movie even without being shown.
Instead, Lee Jong-un chooses to focus on one family - how death has torn it apart and how the kindness of others might just help it heal. And she anchors the film in the strong performances of Sul and Jeon.
Grief and anger are crushing Soon-nam and Jeon conveys that through her body language and behaviour, rigid with anguish and lashing out at the people around her. Soon-nam is on the brink of a breakdown, trying to keep it together for the sake of her daughter.
When she breaks down in wailing sobs which sunder the neighbourhood, it is a heartrending scene.
Jeon is no stranger to portraying intense grief. She was named Best Actress at the Cannes film festival for playing a mother whose son is abducted in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (2007).
Her co-star Sul has a more restrained, but still affecting, role as the father wrestling with guilt for being absent and trying to reconnect with his daughter. He has also worked with Lee Chang-dong - who serves as producer on Birthday and is reportedly Lee Jong-un's mentor - on acclaimed films such as Peppermint Candy (1999) and Oasis (2002).
This could have been an unremittingly bleak film, but Lee Jong-un manages to find little moments of tenderness and humour, making the big emotional moments all the more devastating.