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Marking 6th anniversary of Sewol ferry disaster with films inspired by the tragedy

Documentary “In the Absence” (Screen capture from YouTube)
Documentary “In the Absence” (Screen capture from YouTube)

Six years after the Sewol ferry sank to the dark bottom of the sea on April 16, 2014, many questions still linger and the truth remains undisclosed.

The incident, which took the lives of more than 300 people, most of them high school students, is remembered as a disaster caused by the many shortcomings of our society. Movies and documentaries inspired by the tragedy or that delve into it remind us that the case is still ongoing.

The latest such film is “Ghost Ship” by director Kim Ji-yeong, released Wednesday.

A sequel to Kim’s first film -- “Intention,” released in 2018 -- “Ghost Ship” picks up where the first film left off: Who rigged the ship’s automatic identification system data -- real-time information on the vessel’s speed and location, provided by the government -- and why?

Two years ago, Kim, along with journalist Kim Eo-jun -- the producer of both films -- cast doubt on the government’s explanation that the tragedy was caused by cargo overload and inexperienced steering.

Based on numerous sources of data, including data from the first ship to have witnessed the sinking and the Navy’s radar logs, which were cross-checked with statements from witnesses and survivors, “Intention” claimed the government data had been manipulated. 

Documentary “Ghost Ship” (Atnine Film)
Documentary “Ghost Ship” (Atnine Film)

“Ghost Ship” takes that claim a step further, providing detailed evidence to back up the hypothesis, incorporating comments from automatic identification system experts and computer graphics animations to make its case. The director discovers not only that the system data allegedly from the Sewol was not tracked from the ocean but from somewhere in Shenzhen, a city in southern China, but that the data from other ships near the accident site had also been fabricated as well.

“In the Absence” by director Yi Seung-jun takes a different approach, focusing on the day of the accident and how the victims were abandoned to their fate in the absence of proper action by the government. Focusing on showing what took place without forcing a conclusion, the 29-minute documentary film is mostly composed of interviews with survivors, victims’ families and rescue workers as well as footage from the day.

The documentary won the grand jury prize at the 2018 DOC NYC, an annual documentary film festival held in New York, and was also nominated for the best short documentary prize at this year’s Academy Awards.

The full documentary is available on the YouTube channel of the US film production company Field of Vision.

Documentary “In the Absence” (Screen capture from YouTube)
Documentary “In the Absence” (Screen capture from YouTube)

Paying tribute to the survivors and the victims’ families is the omnibus feature film “After Spring” (2018).

Consisting of three episodes, it is the work of rookie directors Jang Jun-yeop, Jin Cheong-ha and Jeon Shin-hwan. Veteran actors Yoo Jae-myung, Jeon Mi-seon and Jeon Seok-ho appear in the film.

“Birthday” remains the first and only long feature film that has the Sewol ferry disaster at its center. Fronted by Cannes-winning actress Jeon Do-yeon and actor Sol Kyung-gu, the movie depicts a family’s struggle to cope after losing a loved one in the accident.

Film “Birthday” (NEW)
Film “Birthday” (NEW)

With restrained emotion, the film shows how the people left behind go on with their lives.

“The film is not only about those people who lost their loved ones, but also a story of us. I wanted to portray how the tragedy affected the lives of ordinary people,” director Lee Jong-eon said about the film at a preview event last year.

By Choi Ji-won (