Animating war

Dan Edwards

Sejong Park's Birthday Boy

Sejong Park's Birthday Boy

Korea, 1951. A young boy plays amongst the ruins of his country’s civil war. The landscape is a drab brown, devoid of life. The boy stages a game of soldiers in the streets of his dilapidated village, childishly re-enacting the conflict that has left its marks all around him. He returns home to find his father’s possessions neatly parcelled and sitting on the doorstep. Unaware of the significance of such a ‘present’, he slings his father’s dog tags around his neck and marches up and down outside the house. That night he plays sleepily with his toys as his mother arrives home. Her cheerful greeting indicates her ignorance of the news that awaits her.

This simple tale is the basis of Birthday Boy, a short in the anime style made by Sejong Park while studying at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. In 9 minutes, Park’s work manages to convey the twofold horror of war.

Firstly, he shows us how conflict seeps into every aspect of people’s lives. The child of Birthday Boy is not only surrounded by the detritus of war, it permeates every aspect of his life and behaviour, down to the toys he plays with and the games he enacts. He runs among abandoned military hardware littering the landscape. A train passes, laden with tanks. The endless procession of silhouetted man-made monsters starkly illustrates the faceless nature of modern, mechanised warfare, recalling a similar scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963). Ironically, the boy uses the passing train to crush pieces of scrap metal to use in his collection of homemade toys, all of them replicas of the war machines from which the scrap metal comes.

The second, more unsettling experience of living in a war zone evoked by Birthday Boy is that of absence. The town is unnervingly deserted. There are no other children and none of the bustle of urban life. The boy’s home is also empty. His mother works and his father has been taken by the army. The tragedy is that the child has no idea that the loss of his father is permanent. He plays on, oblivious to the bereavement that will shape the rest of his life.

Birthday Boy movingly sketches the kind of tiny incident that occurs countless times in any armed conflict. In doing so, Park’s film reminds us of what politicians and generals would have us forget: that it is not the grand battles and levelled cities that represent the true horror of war, but the accumulation of innumerable individual absences in the lives of those left living. These are the holes that remain long after the material damage has faded.

Birthday Boy won the Yoram Gross Animation Award at this year’s Dendy Awards for Short Films, 51st Sydney Film Festival.

Birthday Boy, writer/director Sejong Park, producer Andrew Gregory

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 21

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004