Popular expectations often compel filmmakers to portray large-scale disasters – whether fictional or dramatized accounts of actual events – with considerable bombast and sensationalism. And while the present era is one in which skewed, muddled, and opinion-based reporting dominate all forms of media, there remain people who regard stark, unembellished truth-telling as both art and necessity, including Director Seung-jun Yi, whose Academy Award film In the Absence offers a concise but harrowing chronicle of the Sewol ferry disaster.
The MV Sewol capsized in the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014, ultimately sinking and claiming the lives of 304 passengers in the process. Among the deceased were 250 high school students, many of whom made efforts to contact family and friends as they helplessly awaited their demise. In the Absence chronicles the tragedy in heart-wrenching detail, melding together harrowing video of the incident at every stage with audio of government dispatches and conversations and messages sent by trapped and helpless passengers. In a decidedly cruel irony, the story unfolds amidst the scenery of shimmering waters and distant mountains, transforming an otherwise breathtaking panorama into a hellscape stained by human suffering.
What emerges through Yi’s masterfully edited montage of primary source material, is a sobering reminder of the high cost of bureaucracy, malfeasance, and incompetence, especially when innocent lives hang in the balance. Indeed, the sinking of the Sewol set into motion a scandal that rocked South Korean society and government, eventually resulting in civil and criminal penalties against many individuals and instructions, including South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was ultimately expelled from office for her lack of leadership and action in the early, critical hours of the tragedy.
Seung-jun Yi’s In the Absence presents the story of the Sewol disaster with simplicity and sensitivity, providing a respectful platform for the tragedy’s underrepresented victims and those who have carried on without them while quietly suffering and searching for answers. In the Absence is not a lighthearted cinematic experience, but it is a necessary one that reminds audiences that the chaos and uncertainty of life is often compounded by the disconnect between those of power and influence and the everyday people.
Inside Your Head offers a tip of the proverbial cap to In the Absence, awarding this film four and a half out of five golden top hats.
– Mike Bessler, January 2020