In the Absence (2018/2020)
Director: Yi Seung-Jun
2020 Oscar-nominated documentary short In the Absence, from South Korean director Yi Seung-Jun, is a moving portrait of the human condition amidst one of the most devastating human tragedies outside of wartime in recent years.
Documenting the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry between Incheon and Jeju in South Korea, In the Absence intelligently deconstructs the gross negligence and personal mistakes that led to 304 passengers perishing in the cold Yellow Sea in 2014, the film’s chronological presentation matching governmental and personal footage of the wreck to official and private communications that were ocurring at the same time to create a great deal of empathy for the victims and rile up anger towards those culperable.
A worlwide news story, the sinking of the MV Sewol was most notorious for the death of 250 minors from an Incheon school whom were instructed to remain in their cabins as ferry officials, including the captain, were taken to safety. The documentary, which matches footage of the captain escaping on a lifeboat to a weeping mother’s description of her last interaction with her panicked daughter aboard the sinking ship (an interaction that was occuring at the same time), blends personal tragedy with the outwardly lethargic, certainly negligent and almost entirely horrifying actions of the country’s PR-machine of a government – a seemingly poisonous band of self-preservation machines each acting in the interest of themselves and public perception but never for a moment considering the lives that would be lost per their orders – to create a piece both in tune with the emotion and delicacy of its subject, but one also worth revering for its confrontation of the harsh truths that led to the understaffed, less-than-motivated, badly ordered and slowly dealt with rescue efforts ordered by the elite members of South Korea’s government.
In the Absence does more than simply associate us with an authoritarian retrospective that benefits from the power of hindsight however, it also forces an encounter with the gut-wrenching truth as it unravels to devastating effect clip by clip, soundbite by soundbite. More than a mere account of the events, this South Korean Oscar-nominated offering forces an association with the families involved and uses that to bubble the anger in your gut towards the public servants responsible, as well as the more problematic universal elements regarding compassion, empathy and humanity in the face of reputation, perception and power. To claim that this film is nothing short of a warning sign to humanity across the globe would be an understatement.
Though very specific to one nation, its government and its people, the true power of In the Absence comes from how universal its key themes of empathy, loss, corruption and negligence are presented, emotionally leading the charge from the imabalanced, reputational world of modern concerns and back towards something far more deeply connected to the human spirit.
This is certainly one of the most emotion-stirring 29 minutes you’ll have all year; a grand effort and deserved Oscar nominee.