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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Yellow Ribbon"


As we approach the seventh anniversary of the Sewol tragedy, perhaps inevitably the event has taken on connotations less of a contemporary disaster and more of a historical event. While "Yellow Ribbon" was filmed in 2019, the people spotlighted in this documentary also find themselves seeing that day increasingly as an abstraction. This is true even of those people who lost someone they loved at Sewol, though "Yellow Ribbon" has the unique approach of focusing on people who were less directly affected- those who wear the iconic yellow ribbon.

If you've ever seen a yellow ribbon in South Korea, by the way, that's its intended meaning. Remembrance of the Sewol tragedy was a simple symbolic act that turned into nigh-revolutionary necessity as the presiding government refused to make a serious investigation of just what exactly happened. "Yellow Ribbon" features a lot of footage of the protests but is often short on the context, expecting viewers who had watched it unfold at the time to remember the big moments.

Take the scene of old people handing out free pizzas, for example, which is inexplicable until you remember that this was a part of a counter-protest to a hunger strike by Sewol survivors. But most of "Yellow Ribbon" avoids such grotesque dimensions. Centered around five people with distinct reactions and memories both to Sewol at the time and the following years, the discussion tilts toward the unavoidably personal. Take one graduate student, a high school student when the tragedy happened, who herself had gone on a school trip to Jeju Island by ferry only just recently.

A schoolteacher at the time of the tragedy tells a similarly dark story of just being haunted by the question of what if she had been there with her kids? Would she have saved them? For her, the personal conflict is neverending. Hence why she continues to wear the yellow ribbon. Another man who ran a cafe near the semi-permanent protest site at Gwanghwamun Square just can't stop thinking about all the protestors helplessly waiting for answers about the tragedy that never came.

One human rights activist was just stunned in disbelief by the fact that the people trapped on the ferry weren't saved right away. She remembers still her very first thought, that everything would be fine. One man just had his love of boats destroyed, finding himself unable to use the instrument of his work to help the sinking ferry in sight of his normal route. He's since allowed survivors the use of his own home as they grieve at the sight of their family's passing.

"Yellow Ribbon" is simultaneously haunting but also hopelessly abstract. I mean that both literally and figuratively. The five interviewees, as well as the context director Joo Hyeon-sook provides, suggest that even their secondhand trauma is permanent. They may not ever move on, or want to. However, this same sense of abstraction makes "Yellow Ribbon" poorly suited as a purely informational documentary. As a window into human emotion, however, this production is top notch.

Review by William Schwartz


"Yellow Ribbon" is directed by Joo Hyeon-sook. Release date in Korea: 2021/04/01.


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