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Brief review: In the Absence – a brief Sewol documentary that packs a punch

In the Absence poster

Some of the best things come in small sizes, and this documentary about the Sewol tragedy is one of them.

In the Absence: in the absence of a serious rescue effort, in the absence of decent, serious reporting by the mainstream media, in the absence of many other things.

The documentary is only 29 minutes long but it packs such an emotional punch in such a brief time that you would not want it to be much longer. It tells the story of the disaster simply, without embellishment. Footage of the sinking as it happens is accompanied by a soundtrack of the minute-by-minute communication between the ship, the coastguard, the rescue teams and officials in the Blue House.

The footage is from a variety of sources, but the footage with the most impact is that taken from inside the Sewol: recordings from the dash cams on the windscreens of the trucks in the over-packed hold, jolted into action as the trucks tip over; and the footage taken by the young passenger on their mobile phones.1 Meanwhile, as the ship sinks the Blue House seems to be more interested in getting a live video stream from the scene than in getting rescue ships or helicopters there.

And then, when the president comes down to witness the salvage efforts personally, the rescue teams are more interested in seeming to be doing something, anything, rather than doing something that will be actually useful. Their efforts to pump air into the upturned hull were rushed (to be fair, the weather conditions were not ideal) so that they could be seen to be taken decisive action while the president was watching.

The documentary has interviews with some of the parents, who will always regret telling their children to follow the instructions of their teacher to stay below desk rather than escape, and with the civilian divers who, in the absence of sufficiently trained navy divers bore the brunt of the recovery effort, conducting many more missions than was consistent with physical and mental well-being.

Many questions have never been satisfactorily answered, among them: why did it take so long to raise the ship from the sea bed? A telling observation made by the film is that the Sewol was raised two weeks after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye – the implication being that while Park held on to the last vestiges of power, that was enough to prevent the ferry being raised.

The documentary leaves you speechless. Not because it appears to be pushing a particular agenda (other than showing the pain of those impacted), but simply because it tells the story directly, leaving you to draw your own conclusions.

In the Absence, Dir Yi Seung-jun (2018) score-2score-2score-2score-2score-2

In the Absence screened at SOAS on 6 February 2019 and was followed by Q+A with its producer, Gary Byungseok Kam


  1. As an aside, now that the Sewol is raised, many mobile phones have been recovered from the mud. Many of these phones have been brought to London where there is a world leading laboratory that specialises in the forensic examination of phones to retrieve lost data. []

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