Birthday (“Saeng-il”)
119 minutes, Republic of Korea, 2019

Reviewed by Arturo Arredondo

Written and directed by Lee Jong Un in her feature-length directorial debut, Birthday centers on a family grappling with the aftermath of losing their son in the Sewol ferry disaster. Produced by renowned Korean screenwriter/filmmaker Lee Chang Dong (Green Fish, Burning), the film shares many of his stylistic traits but is propelled by the polar opposite performances of repeated onscreen pairing Sol Kyung Gu and Jeon Do Yeon (who starred opposite each other in Lee Chang Dong’s Peppermint Candy and Oasis in 1999 and 2002, respectively).

Jung Il (Sol Kyung Gu) has recently returned from time abroad in Vietnam, ostensibly on a money-making venture, and is struggling to connect with his daughter Ye Sol (Kim Bo Min). Unfortunately, his estranged wife Soon Nam (Jeon Do Yeon) wants nothing to do with him, leading to a strange ballet wherein they take turns caring for their daughter without any meaningful interaction between them. Soon, it turns out that the birthday of their deceased son Su Ho (Yoon Chang Young) is next week, and while Jung Il is eager to make amends to his family for being absent and to confront the loss, Soon Nam’s grief over Su Ho’s death in the sinking of MV Sewol has grown into alternating bouts of rage, self-deception, and abusive behavior towards her family.

Lensed by cinematographer Jo Yeong Gyu (Bong Joon Ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, Lee Chang Dong’s Secret Sunshine, Lee Han’s Punch), the film very thoughtfully uses wide shots sparingly when many characters are in a scene. Through the use of primarily medium shots and medium close ups, you are forced into proximity and intimacy with Jung Il and Soon Nam as their moments of quiet in their apartment are punctuated by sudden arguments and bursts of bitterness. There is little deviation from this photography, even as the list of characters expands; while they each get time to develop their backstories and connections to Su Ho, Jung Il‘s and Soon Nam’s moments together dominate the film with a tension that seesaws between claustrophobic and volcanic. Jung Il demonstrates repeatedly that he wants to provide for his wife and daughter, while a pivotal scene shows Soon Nam purchase an assortment of clothes for the deceased Su Ho while neglecting Ye Sol. It’s a great exploration of their differing approaches to tackling their grief, and a tremendously powerful observational study of how they are simultaneously pulled apart and brought closer together.

The soundtrack is typical of minimalist Korean art films. The sense of quiet pushes the viewer into the silence and explosions that happen within and between the characters.

This is a deeply moving film that cares about its characters. It’s a film concerned with questioning what kind of people are these characters and can they find redemption for their failures? That a film could follow and depict so many flawed people without judging them is a tough balancing act, and it more than rises to the task.

Ratings: 5/5 stars