Troubled waters: South Korean director mines hope from tragedy
The 2014 Sewol ferry disaster turned director Uhm Tae-hwa toward a story that explores how people can cling to beliefs despite despair
When the sunken remains of the Sewol ferry were raised from the sea floor on March 23, it triggered raw memories of South Korea’s worst maritime disaster, one that left more than 300 dead, the majority of them schoolchildren.
The country then commemorated the third anniversary of the tragedy on April 16 and lingering grief continues to emerge from all parts of society, including from within the nation’s cinema industry, with no shortage of films about Sewol, or touching on the event, being released or in the making.
The controversial documentary Diving Bell: The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol caused a stir at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) – the political fallout that resulted from that film being screened is still being felt in the backrooms at BIFF – while more documentaries bent on exploring the circumstances surrounding the event have followed, from 2015’s Upside Down, 2016’s Last, and the recent After The Sewol, which has been touring film festivals globally.
Director Uhm Tae-hwa’s Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a visually stunning, lyrical but unlikely addition to this growing list of films, coming as it does from the realms of the fantasy genre.
The director had originally planned to make a thriller for his second feature film, following the low-budget and well-received comedy INGtoogi: The Battle of Internet Trolls in 2013.
But footage of Sewol sinking hit a raw nerve, prompting Uhm to entirely reshape his project.
“When the accident occurred in 2014, I was very angry with the government of our country and in my opinion, thought they wanted to hide the truth. The best possible way for me to react to that was to make this film,” says Uhm.
Starring veteran film and TV star Kang Dong-won (The Priests) and newbie Shin Eun-soo, Vanishing Time concerns a young girl named Soo-rin (Shin), whose friends mysteriously disappear after a trip into the mountains.
They find themselves trapped in an alternate reality where time has been suspended. Only Soo-rin’s best friend Sung-min (Lee Hyo-je), a young orphan, manages to return a few days later, but now in the form of an unrecognizable adult (Kang).
Uhm and screenwriter Jo Seul-ye say they were initially “at a loss” when it came to understanding the facts as they were being presented at the time of the accident, by both the Korean media and the government.
It was the duo’s personal “search for truth” that motivated them to come up with Vanishing Time’s storyline.
“At the time of [Sewol], we felt like we didn’t know what to believe because there was so much different information,” says Jo. “The news changed a lot; the government seemed to be hiding things. So we wanted to put across two things in our film: people who believe in something completely and purely, and also this hope for the missing children to return, no matter what.”
Such themes are poignantly and powerfully fleshed out in their film, when the missing Sung-min finally – and incomprehensibly – returns as an adult. Though Soo-rin recognizes him and is relieved to have him back, she is unable to convince her stepfather or the detectives that the grown-up Sung-min is in fact her missing best friend.
“I wanted to tell the story from the viewpoint of children, who live in a world where they still believe in something,” says director Uhm. “Adults take a different approach. When I had to choose my characters, a young girl represented a weak creature – a creature that may come closer to the truth, but who will not be trusted by adults.”
Jo adds: “Soo-rin is the girl who has that belief in her friend. She hopes that her dear friend Sung-min will come back. She doesn’t care how he looks or who he is – she just really wants him to come back.”
I wanted to tell the story
from the viewpoint of children, who live in
a world where they still
believe in something
– Uhm Tae-hwa
Unlike survival-action-drama films Train To Busan and Tunnel, whose plots offer straightforward connections to a public mistrust of South Korea’s social system and political incompetence when catastrophe strikes, Vanishing Time’s allusion to the Sewol disaster is delicately implicit.
In fact, Uhm and Jo assert that they never had the intention to make a film that points fingers, but rather one which focuses on the message of hope, truth, and the power of belief.
“I did not want to make a sad film or too dark a film,” says Uhm. “Rather, I wanted to tell a story that might soothe the pain and the sorrow of those who lost their dear children. The atmosphere [of Vanishing Time] reminds us of that accident, but the story twists toward hope.”
As they began developing the script shortly after the ferry sank, both director and screenwriter say they were especially mindful of the how the families of the victims might react to their film, therefore opting for a more metaphorical approach.
Other, upcoming films like Sewolho, the first slated feature film about the ferry disaster, have been criticized for insensitivity toward victims’ families. Initially due for an April 2018 release, the film’s crowdfunding initiative was halted last March over mounting public outrage over its subject matter.
“We were so cautious and didn’t want to deal with the accident too directly,” says Uhm. “As there were still people suffering, I didn’t want to give the impression that our film is using this sad incident for commercial purposes.
“We also put in some settings in our film that we thought could suit Korean audiences, even if they didn’t know that the film references the accident.”
Despite the presence of A-list star Kang, and positive reviews, Uhm’s film was a disappointment at the box office on release in South Korea late last year, around the same time the nation was swept up in protests directed at ex-president Park Geun-hye and a period that saw overall domestic cinema admissions fall.
Uhm has since been showcasing the film at international festivals, including the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, in April, where the director was joined by Jo.
“I am proud to make this brave film. My younger brother (who also stars in the film as a supporting actor) lives in Ansan, near the town of the victims’ high school, and many people there who talked to him told him that my film gave them some consolation. When I heard that, I was comforted,” says Uhm.