The Talent Show (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Performing for their lost children

South Korean documentary film “The Talent Show” follows the story of several mothers who happen to try a bit on acting as a part of their personal process of dealing with immense loss and heartbreak. While that shocking tragedy involved with their lost children is not mentioned that much throughout the documentary, a sense of loss and devastation among them becomes more palpable as we get to know them more and more along the story, and it is touching to see how they find some strength to go on with their lives while also remembering their lost children as usual.

That tragedy in question happened on the morning of April 16th, 2014. A ferry named MV Sewol was suddenly sunken in the middle of its routine sail from Inchon to Jeju Island, and many of its passengers including 250 students of Danwon High School of Ansan city, who happened to be on a field trip at that time, died as a consequence. This terrible incident came to expose more of how incompetent President Park Geun-hye and her government really was in many aspects, and that eventually led to her imprisonment followed by several years of imprisonment, but, to the anger and frustration of the families of the victims and survivors, we still do not know what exactly happened on that dreadful day.

The documentary focuses on a group of mothers who later came to found a small independent acting troupe for the remembrance for their lost children, and the opening scene shows one stage performance where they play high school student characters not so different from their lost children. Their routine original play is called “The Talent Show”, and the play is mainly about how its high school student characters joyfully and passionately prepare for the talent show to be held in the middle of their field trip period.

The reason why these mothers came to act in this stage performance is simple and poignant. Besides remembering their lost children again, they also want to console their spirits as well as themselves via their stage performance, and they willingly talk to us about their respective thoughts and feelings about that. At first, it was just a casual way of theirs for reconnecting with the world after barely recovering from that devastating incident, but they came to see some value and meaning from their amateurish acting, and many of them became more passionate about acting under the thoughtful guidance of their director, who was the only professional in the group during its first several years.

Of course, these mothers have each own story about that terrible day. They all remember when they were initially relieved to hear that everyone on that ship was rescued – and how much they were devastated to learn that many of its passengers were actually not rescued at all. At one point, one of the mothers recollects her last phone call with her dear daughter, and you can feel how painful that memory is to her, even though she remains rather phlegmatic in her recollection.

As the mothers banded together for their performance, the troupe came to draw more attention from the public and the media, and the mothers soon found themselves performing here and there in South Korea. Although their acting may look clumsy at times, that weak aspect is compensated a lot by their sincerity and passion, and they certainly appreciate many positive reactions from their audiences.

Nevertheless, the troupe members sometime clashed with each other over a number of small matters, and the documentary does not hide this at all while showing more of the complex human relationships among them. At one point, a certain troupe member comes to draw more attention, and she even receives an offer to act in some other troupe, but that unintentionally draws envy and jealousy from some of her colleagues. Not so surprisingly, some of the original members eventually leave the troupe later, and that causes some bitterness among the remaining members.

However, the most challenging moment for the troupe is when they are asked to perform at Danwon High school. Because their performance is supposed to be held on April 16th, many of the troupe members show understandable concern as wondering whether they are really ready for doing this performance, and it is quite clear to us that they are still reeling from their devastating personal loss. Many of them frequently go to psychiatry clinics, and the documentary lets us observe one of them seriously consulting with her psychiatrist about her current mental condition.

Director Lee So-hyun wisely and thoughtfully focuses more on the vivid humanity of the troupe members, and that prevents her documentary from becoming a superficial presentation of sadness and devastation. When their time to perform at Danwon High school comes at last, the troupe members certainly try their best even when they cannot help but emotionally overwhelmed by being in their lost children’s school again, and their sincere performance is wholeheartedly welcomed and embraced by many young students in the school.

In conclusion, “The Talent Show” gives us a modest but poignant human portrayal from the aftermath of the Sinking of MV Sewol. To be frank with you, I wish it showed more about its unforgettable human subjects, but the documentary did its job as well as intended, and it will surely remind you of why we should remember this horrible incident with more care and compassion.

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