An on-screen . title sets the action in Korea, 1951. The film tells the story of a young boy, Manuk, who roams a seemingly deserted town to glean and recycle the debris of war. We first meet him in the wreck of an aeroplane, looking for a particular piece of war refuse – a bolt – to turn into a toy soldier for his collection. He sings a song about a bear. Upon hearing the unmistakable low whistle of a train in the distance he runs to the track and places the bolt on the rail. The train thunders past on its urgent mission to carry tanks to the front. Manuk stands mesmerised, and grins widely. Once the train has passed he retrieves the bolt which has become magnetised. He makes his way through the town, pretending to be a soldier engaged in house-to-house fighting until his attention is captured by the drone of aeroplane engines. Silently he watches them slowly cross the sky. His war game begins again as he crouches behind rocks on a ridge overlooking an area with houses jumbled together. A postman cycles down the road below Manuk’s hiding place. Manuk imagines he is with his dad, pinned down by enemy fire. “Dad, there are too many of them,” he cries as the sound of machine guns and artillery fire fill his head. “But we are braver than them,” his father replies in the game. Manuk picks up a rock as if it is a hand grenade, expertly pulls the pin with his teeth and hurls it at the enemy crying “Dad, get down!” He waits, crouched, fingers in ears for the explosion which never comes. Instead, we hear the postman cry in surprise and pain, before crashing his bicycle and shouting at his unseen tormentor. Manuk slinks away and climbs the hill towards his home. He takes a key from a special hiding spot, and approaches the verandah in front of his house. He notices a parcel and hurries to open it. He pulls out an old leather wallet containing a faded black and white photograph of a man crouching with a child dressed as Manuk is now, but much younger. Manuk gently caresses the photograph with his thumb. He then pulls out a set of dog tags, and an old boot. He marches up and down in front of his house, wearing the boots as if he is a soldier on guard. Later, inside the house, he plays with the toy soldiers and tanks he has made from bits and pieces of metal he has found and falls asleep on the floor. His mother appears at the door, saying “Manuk, Mum is home”.
The film is set in Korea, during the war that pitched the north of the country and its allies China and the Soviet Union, against the south and a United Nations coalition led by the United States of America which included more than 17,000 Australian army and air force personnel. But the film is not ‘about’ the war as such (as Sejong makes clear in media interviews), and is certainly not about the Australian experience of this conflict. Neither is it an explicit comment on the conflict in Iraq which began the year before the film was finished. Rather it is about the impact of war on those left behind, and so has a much more universal and timeless appeal.
Part of what is exciting about the film from an Australian perspective is that it does not allude to the usual iconography or correspond with the kinds of social and cultural experiences that typically mark films from this country. It does not allude to local histories of storytelling, or overtly suggest that it can tell us something about what it means to be Australian, and yet it tells us so much about these things by telling a story from, about and set in a different place and culture. As Sung-Ae Lee has argued in a reading of the coverage of the film and its success in Korean language newspapers in Sydney, the film provided the opportunity for the celebration of diasporic achievement and success, for cultural maintenance through its remembering of the Korean War, and for empowerment of the diasporic community (Lee 2004, p. 233). At the same time, the allusions to other films, the subtlety of the film’s style as expressed through camerawork, editing, sound and music as well as mastery of digital animation techniques and a structure familiar from mainstream Hollywood cinema mark the film as a knowing and learned contribution to international screen culture.
The film is divided into four parts of roughly equal length and an epilogue, a structure familiar from mainstream Hollywood cinema but not so usual in Australian short filmmaking (Thompson 1999, pp. 28–44). In the first part, the setup, the protagonist, Manuk, and his world are established. Manuk’s series of overlapping goals are not all made obvious in this part, which runs up to the point that we (and Manuk) first hear the train. He is clearly very young, too young to tell us what is happening; we must piece together the story ourselves. One of the pleasures of Birthday Boy is realizing how much of the story is seeded early on but only gradually revealed, and only able to be fully assembled in the climax, to devastating final effect.
Manuk’s primary goal is to be reunited with his father, to be with and like him, a soldier at war. The games he plays throughout the film revolve around this goal, most obviously in the scene with the postman, in which Manuk’s inadvertent assault on the hapless cyclist is the result of a game in which he imagines he is with his father attacking an unseen enemy. His search for the piece of metal in this opening part of the film is also directed towards the goal of reuniting with his father, if only symbolically through his imaginative play with the soldiers and tanks he builds with scavenged metal, his trophies of war. His broadest, loosest goal is to play and to occupy the time he must spend alone – perhaps after school – until his mother returns home. He must make his own entertainment, and he is resourceful. He is driven by the desire to play, and this is what is enchanting about him. He is imaginative and mechanically savvy, but still too young to understand what the return of his father’s possessions means.
Birthday Boy has won over 40 awards at film festivals around the world including Best Animated Short at the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival in 2004 which qualified the film for the 2005 Academy Awards even before Park and fellow students had graduated from the AFTRS. It was subsequently nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Other awards include the Prix Jean-Luc Xiberras at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 2005 (which had a special focus on Korea) and Best Short Animation at the 2005 BAFTA awards. It has screened at over 100 film festivals around the world, and is the most awarded film in the almost forty-year history of the AFTRS.