Manuk (voiced by Joshua Ahn), pretending to shoot a gun, exchanges a few battle cries with his absent father, and throws a rock at a man on a bicycle, who crashes. It is the postman, who nevertheless has delivered a parcel. Manuk walks home, unwraps the mysterious parcel and plays with its contents.
Summary by Antoinette Starkiewicz.
The boy’s identification with his soldier father is clearly shown; Manuk acts as if he were really on the battlefield with him. The strong father and son link is reinforced in this heartbreaking sequence in which Manuk – the innocent, uncomprehending child – examines the parcel’s tragic contents, makes them his own and continues to play at being a soldier.
One day in the life of Manuk (voiced by Joshua Ahn), a little boy playing at being a soldier among the devastation of the Korean War, 1951. His father is away, a real soldier at war. Returning home, the boy opens a parcel, taking it to be a birthday present. Unfortunately it’s not, but the boy is too young to understand the tragic meaning of its contents.
A heart-rending story, based on the author’s own childhood in Korea, Birthday Boy is told with dramatic camera angles, an illustrator’s eye for background detail and the animator’s great skill at characterisation. ‘I had to find a little boy’s mannerisms and make it clear in my animation that this is a little boy’, recalled the film’s director and animator, Sejong Park.
The film is Park’s first 3D animation. Arriving in Australia in 1999, he was already a skilled commercial illustrator, and worked as an in-between artist on the traditionally animated, 2D feature Return to Neverland (2002). He acquired his technical skills in 3D animation as a student in the digital department of AFTRS, where he made Birthday Boy.
Stylistically, rarely does 3D and CGI show such sensitivity. The challenge of 3D animation is to show convincing human movement and facial expression, which in the hands of less talented animators can be merely robotic versions of life. Park meets this challenge in imbuing Manuk with convincing animation and facial expression, which are remarkable, given that this is his first 3D film.
In content, Park has succeeded in making a film for both children and adults: children can identify with the little boy, as adults will appreciate the playful child, oblivious to tragedy. The soundtrack is delicately nuanced (by sound mixer Chris McKeith) to evoke a feeling of childhood innocence and a harsh, war-torn land.
In 2004, Birthday Boy won the AFI Award for Best Short Animation and the Yoram Gross Animation Award at the Sydney Film Festival. Internationally, the film received the 2004 BAFTA Award for Best Animated Short, and was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short (the winner was another original and personal re-creation of a three-dimensional world, Ryan, 2004, by Chris Landreth).
Notes by Antoinette Starkiewicz