On 16th April, 2014, a ferry en route from Incheon to Jeju Island sank taking the lives of 304 passengers many of whom were high school students on a school trip. The Sewol Ferry Disaster went on to have wide-scale political ramifications, eventually feeding into the discontent with the government of Park Geun-hye who, it was discovered, had been uncontactable for seven hours during the height of the crisis, later refusing to account for her whereabouts. Ju Hyun-sook’s documentary Yellow Ribbon (당신의 사월, Dangsin-eui Sawol) is, in some senses, usual in that it follows not those directly bereaved by the tragedy but those caught on its edges, ordinary men and women who find themselves haunted by national trauma.
What each so clearly recalls is the sense of helplessness that they felt as bystanders watching from the shore. All of them believed the passengers would be rescued, no one envisioned a tragedy unfolding, and so they were lulled into a false sense of security by the media’s mistaken reports that everyone had been saved. Fisherman Lee Ok-young was among the first to realise that the information being given out by the media was incorrect when he sailed out towards the ferry and saw the shadows of those trapped inside. In fact, many of those who were rescued from the wreck were saved by good samaritan boats who came to help, Korea’s coastguard didn’t show up until 40 minutes later. Ok-young is, however, among the most directly affected, later finding the body of one of the students caught on a rope he was using for seaweed farming.
Ever present in the background, usually taking photos, is the young woman’s father – a constant reminder of the scale of the tragedy. It was dignity of the families which first struck Park Cheol-woo, the owner of a coffee shop in Korea’s political centre near the presidential residence of the Blue House. Hearing that the families were due to make a visit, he felt very strongly that they must be protected. Jung Ju-yeon, a woman in her 50s working in human rights education, felt something much the same and decided to participate in the protests alongside the bereaved parents in a show of solidarity.
The government, meanwhile, continued to pursue its authoritarian line allowing pundits to brush off the disaster as no different from a traffic accident while trying the shame the protestors into silence. Hoping to blacken his name, the conservative press discredited a hunger striking father by bringing up the fact he was divorced, as if lying the tragedy at his own feet in an attempt to deflect the government’s responsibility for the failure to protect the children. The sense of abnegated responsibility is something which continues to weigh on teacher Jo Su-jin who finds herself meditating on the selfless teachers who sacrificed their lives trying to save their students. She wonders what she would have done in their position, reflecting on the choices which must have passed through their minds knowing that they too had family waiting for them.
Park Cheol-woo wishes he could forget, but is haunted by the spectre of the tragedy, as is the husband of Jung Ju-yeon who was hired to create a series of illustrations and forced to relive the pain and suffering of all who were involved. The weight of indignation eventually fed into the Candlelight Protests which ultimately brought down the government of Park Geun-hye but the feelings of helplessness have not dissipated because justice has not been served and too many unanswered questions remain. There are no explanations for the confluence of circumstances which allowed the tragedy to happen, nor for the failure of authority which proved itself incapable of protecting its citizens.
Yet there are signs of hope. Lee Yu-kyeong was a high school student herself when the tragedy occurred, watching helplessly on a TV screen as hundreds of other kids just like her lost their lives. They trusted the authorities to protect them and they did as they were told, but the authorities let them down. Lee Yu-kyeong is now an archival studies student, hoping to contribute by honouring their memories, making sure they are never forgotten so that nothing like this ever happens again. Yellow Ribbon is a document of national trauma, but also perhaps of healing as those touched by tragedy attempt to look forward by building a safer society founded on a sense of mutual protection.
Yellow Ribbon screens in Amsterdam on March 6/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.
Trailer (English subtitles)
Introduction by director Ju Hyun-sook from the Busan International Film Festival (activate English subtitles by pressing subtitle button)