Thursday, October 16, 2014

Busan 2014 Review: THE TRUTH SHALL NOT SINK WITH SEWOL Invokes Tears And Outrage

Part of MKC's coverage of the 19th Busan International Film Festival

By Pierce Conran

The Sewol Disaster, the most significant event to rock South Korea since the IMF Crisis in 1997, gets its first big screen treatment with The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, the first of what are sure to be many documentaries exploring the subject. Rather than offer an overview of the event and the many issues plaguing Korean society it uncovered, this film from Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong wisely examines only a small portion of the incident. Yet even the narrow avenue it walks uncovers a mountain of upsetting truths concerning the conduct of government and the press during the immediate aftermath of the sinking.

On April 16th of this year, as it made its way from the Port of Incheon to Jeju Island, the Sewol Ferry capsized, along with its 476 passengers, most of which were students on a high school trip. Poor communication, insufficient safety parameters and a propensity for scapegoating mired the resultant rescue efforts, which failed to rescue a single life, save for the lucky few who jumped overboard early on. Lee Jong-in, the owner of a private diving company, attempted to assist in the rescue efforts at his own expense with the use of a 'diving bell' (the Korean title of the documentary), a technique that would allow divers to stay underwater for much longer periods of time than the techniques being employed by the Coast Guard and the Navy. At first blocked by bureaucratic incompetence, his efforts quickly come under pressure from the mainstream press.

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol was easily the most controversial film at Busan this year as fest organizers were urged to cancel screenings at the behest of the Busan City mayor and pressure from various right-wing organizations. Thankfully, BIFF stuck to its guns and the film was shown. Sporting a tone that is nothing short of accusatory, it's plain to see why the government attempted to interfere as it suggests a disturbing level of collusion at work which attempts to discredit Lee and partially deflect responsibility for the failure of rescue operations on to him. The film paints an ugly picture where the only things being saved in the days after the disaster were the necks of those in power rather than the poor souls languishing underwater.

Collated from footage of Lee Jong-in's exploits in the days after the disaster, the documentary is led by the brazen journalist Lee Sang-ho, who spends much of the film in front of the camera. A 'truth-seeking' journalist whose modus operandi is to get right into people's faces with uncomfortable questions, seeking to record their silences or lies rather than expect any truths in their answers. Positioning himself as a martyr, as he aligns himself with Lee Jong-in, undermines the film to an extent but there is no denying his convictions and the efficacy of his approach, particularly in an extraordinary scene where he calls out the coast guard commissioner and a cabinet minister during a sit-down with victim family members.

Released less than six months after the actual event, some, including myself, were worried that The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol could not adequately address the incident so soon after it occurred. Yet, by mostly following one man's involvement with the crisis and naturally allowing his story to incite the outrage of viewers, this brief 77-minute exposé is an explosive introduction into the massive web of lies, tears and anger that has spewed out of Sewol's stern. Directors Lee and Ahn avoid sentimentality until the very end, when an emotional and terribly upsetting interview with a victim's father puts the documentary's aim into focus: people deserve the truth.


This review also appeared on

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