When I saw the trailer for Birthday, my first impression of the film was that it would be a manipulative sob-fest, and I steeled myself for the emotional exploitation and the violin strings. But the film – about the lingering and devastating impact of the 2014 sinking of the ferry MV Sewol on the families and surviving community – surprised me. Birthday snuck up on me by sensitively depicting the subtle and myriad ways that people go through the grieving process, and the good it can do to share your grief with others.
Jeon Do-yeon, a Cannes Best Actress winner for the 2007 film Secret Sunshine (which dealt with similar themes of grief) plays Soon-nam while Sol Kyung-gu plays Jung-il. Together, they are a married but estranged couple who must learn to cope with the death of their eldest son, Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young) in the ferry sinking, while taking care of their young daughter. When the movie begins, Su-ho’s birthday approaches and the couple has differing opinions on whether they should take part in a birthday “celebration”/memorial with Su-ho’s friends and the family members of other victims.
Jeon Do-yeon provides a standout, naturalistic performance as a grieving mother who keeps her emotions bottled up, releasing them in small flashes of resentment, so when she finally is pushed to the brink, it’s startling and yet not unexpected. This way of coping with grief is familiar to those of us who have had to go about our everyday life hiding away grief in your heart. Meanwhile, Sol Kyung-gu sensitively plays the tricky role of the returning absentee dad, who must re-learn how to be a husband and a dad.
One complaint I might have, although this attribute may be due to the slice-of-life direction that director Lee Jong-un took, is that the pace of the movie tends to stop and start with relationships and plot points not being spelled out clearly. Which may be a good thing. The film required me to pay close attention to the way people looked and interacted with each other to discern the relationships between each of the characters and what was going on.
In the end, Birthday rewards patience, empathy, and compassion for its flawed and grieving characters. And yes, despite my gritted determination at the beginning of the film – They want me to cry, I’m not going to cry – I was won over by the excellent performances, sensitive screenplay and restrained direction. And yes, I was a blubbering mess by the end of the film.
Patricia Lim lives in Vancouver and has also spent time in Halifax, Manila, and Beijing. She has written for Ricepaper, Schema, Converge, and Vancouver Observer. She enjoys examining the connections between culture, history, and identity.