In The Absence


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In The Absence
"As the story progresses it becomes increasingly absurd, but it's all well evidenced."

On 16 April 2014, passenger ferry the MV Sewol sank en route from Incheon to Jeju in South Korea. There were 476 people on board when the alarm was raised, many of them high school students. 304 of them died. What's worse is that, according to subsequent inquiries, many could have been saved. Yi Seung-jun's Oscar-nominated short documentary combine interviews with extraordinary archive footage to paint a detailed picture of what happened.

It's the mobile phone footage that's the most difficult to watch. We see the phones themselves later, fished out of the wreck by the civilian divers who stepped in when those working for the official rescue services proved incompetent. First come the videos filmed by young people inside the sinking ship. A conversation about a subway disaster in the not-too-distant past, when the official commend was the same - stay put - and only those who disobeyed in it survived. Should they disobey and go onto the deck, try to get away? Some of them call or text their parents. "Mum, Dad, I miss you." The parents who received these communications wrestled with the same dilemma. It haunts them still.

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Yi's film feels voyeuristic. Ought we to be watching these private moments, presumably the last moments in the lives of some of those we see? Members of their generation, used to everything going online, might not see it that way. It sends an important message, verifies what we hear about what they were told. But where did that message come from? During the critical early stages of the disaster, only one rescue craft was on scene. Questions about how to handle the situation were being addressed not to experts in sea rescue but to the president. the president was in bed. Nobody knew whose advice they should be following, so they waited.

Does this sound unlikely? As the story progresses it becomes increasingly absurd, but it's all well evidenced. Recordings capture official rescue workers lamenting lost photo opportunities when they might be saving lives. In a television broadcast, the president insists that the passengers are waiting to be lifted from the deck; she is quietly informed that the ship is, at the point, completely underwater.

With footage from the inquiries and the public demonstrations that followed, Yi's film explores the aftermath as well as the disaster itself. We hear from traumatised civilian divers who inched their way through blackness in search of bodies, and from those whose loved ones will now be forever absent.

Thorough, detailed and hard-hitting, this is a superb piece of journalism as compelling as it is hard to watch.

Reviewed on: 18 Jan 2020
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In The Absence packshot
A documentary about the sinking of the MV Sewol off the coast of South Korea in 2015.

Director: Seung-jun Yi

Year: 2019

Runtime: 28 minutes

Country: South Korea


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