Lee Jong-un had previously worked on Lee Chang-dong’s films Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2009), but Birthday – which Lee Chang-dong helped produce – is her first feature as writer and director. It is a family drama centred on the aching loss and trauma of absence. Returning from eight years abroad at work and in prison, Jeong-il (Sul Kyung-gu) struggles to reconnect with his unwelcoming wife Soon-nam (Jeon Do-yeon) and their young daughter Ye-sol (Kim Bo-min), whom he barely knows. The real absence here, though, is their older son Su-ho (Yoon Chan-young), drowned in the Sewol ferry disaster. In the period leading up to what would have been Su-ho’s birthday, as Lee delicately traces the sense of guilt, bitterness and recrimination in this fracturing household, she is also modulating the grief of a nation still haunted by a tragedy that Korean cinema has previously addressed only through the documentary form.