Silenced: Film Review

Silenced Hwang Dong-hyuk Still - H 2011

Silenced Hwang Dong-hyuk Still - H 2011

An alternately gripping and grueling dramatization of a child abuse scandal. 

A true-to-life story of physical and sexual abuse in Korean schools.


Were Silenced not based on fact, its unchecked depiction of corporal and sexual abuse in a Korean school for the deaf could be construed as sensational, manipulative, even sadistic. As it were, the polished manner in which director-screenwriter Hwang Dong-hyuk (My Father) adopts mainstream genre conventions to develop ambience, suspense and calculated twists propels the story to an incendiary and compelling conclusion. Although the film ultimately achieves its function to expose deep-rooted and far-reaching social injustice,its visceral representation of harrowing and morally repugnant scenes remains unnerving and questionable.

Adapted from successful writer Cong Jee-young's online novel Dogani, which sparked an uproar over the then little known case, the film still caused a public stir when released in Korea, reflected in the 2.7 million tickets sold within two weeks. It can exert an equally forceful impact on overseas viewers, but making itself heard beyond Asian specialist ancillary could be tricky. 

Opening in classic noir fashion or like a typical Hicksville horror, the protagonist Kang In-ho (Gong Yoo) drives into the small town of Mujin in a cloak of fog (insinuating its moral obscurity), while cutaways show a young boy's shadow hobbling along a darkly symbolic tunnel. A widower, Kang has left his ailing daughter Sol to the care of his mother to take up a position as art teacher at Ja-ae Academy, a boarding school for deaf children. His initiation is one strewn with surprises, each nastier than the last. 

A roadkill incident leads to a brushoff with Seo Yu-jin (Jung Yu-mi), a social worker dealing with domestic violence cases. This is followed by an eerie introduction to headmaster Lee Kang-bok and his identical twin Kang-suk the administrative chief, who unabashedly exhorts a whopping "school investment fund" as pre-requisite for employment. The students are forlorn and recoil from Kang's enthusiastic efforts to bond with them. Tell-tale signs of kids being roughed up soon explode into a full-blown shocker when teacher Park thrashes student Min-su (Jeon Min-su) as if he's a Guantanamo detainee, in front of a totally indifferent faculty. The casualties pile up, from bone-chilling screams from a girl's toilet to the "after-school instructor" Yoo being caught red-handed dunking schoolgirl Yeon-du (Kim Hyun-soo)'s head in a washing machine. The latter incident becomes a catalyst for the exposure of and consequent lawsuit against Park  and the Lees for alleged sexual abuse of at least three children: Min-su, Yeon-du and mentally challenged Yuri (Jung In-suh).

The first half eschews gritty realism for Expressionist atmospherics that accentuate the school's isolation and an oppressive, nearly supernatural air of evil. The ghostly lighting, recurrent tracking shots of long, creaky corridors and the headmaster's aquarium of soft-glowing jellyfish pull one into a realm of secrecy and paranoia similar to that in The Orphanage or Shutter Island. The second half virtually switches genres into a courtroom drama but hardly loses any tension or narrative grip. In fact, when the leviathan machinery of institutional power kicks into gear to buttress and serve the entitled Lees, the outrage it provokes recalls the incensing depiction of corruption in Ryoo Seung-won's The Unjust. Some familiar, but still relevant scenes of public protest take the protagonists' individual grievances to a socially endemic level, so that as the case draws to a close, the amount of felony and suffering melodramatically laid bare assumes a layer of symbolic meaning. Not listening or speaking up, and being beaten and raped can be read as metaphors of how society's have-nots are treated. 

Shedding most of the sentimentality of his previous feature My Father, Hwang's skill at wresting an emotional response through his precise use of slow motion, dramatic pauses and silence can be seen in the scene when Kang stands outside the headmaster's office, ready to placate Lee with a potted plant while Min-su's cries of agony ring from inside. The visual focus on speechless movements leads to an electrifying turning point. Although his acting is not exceptional, Gong's slight physique and wimpy image makes his character much easier to identify with than that of a heroic crusader. The competing forces of conscience and pragmatism tugging at him is given credibility by the sensitive manner in which Hwang brings in his personal history to bear on his decisive actions. As a foil to Kang, Seo's role only comes to the fore in the second half, but Jung (Oki's Movie) makes a smooth transition from her earlier boozy, flaky image to a hot-blooded defender of the weak without appearing sanctimonious.

But the film belongs to the child actors, who transcend the controversial subject by conveying such a complex combination of pain, confusion and resilience one instantly roots for them. A court scene where Yeon-du outwits an intimidating lawyer by turning her hearing impairment into an advantage is an unabashedly uplifting moment.

Irrespective of its good intentions, Silenced is the polar opposite to such films as Michael and Junji Sakamoto's Children of the Dark in its treatment of pedophilia. The scenes are not alluded to, but staged as graphic re-enactments that capitalize on the children's fear and utter helplessness. One questions the need to go this far to shake up the audience, when the children's accounts of their experience in sign language are already so effective in conveying their trauma.

Technical credits are proficient though a sparser musical background would have been more in tune with the subject of silence.

Busan International Film Festival, Market Screening
CJ Entertainment presents a Sangeori Pictures/Fantagio production
Cast: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Hyun-soo, Jung In-suh, Baik Seung-hwan
Director-screenwriter: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Based on the novel by Cong Jee-young
Produced by: Eom Yong-hoon, Na Byung-jin
Executive producer: Katharine Kim
Director of photographer: Kim Ji-yong
Production designer: Chae Kyung-sun
Costume designer: Im Seung-hee
Music: MOWG
Editor: Ham Sung-won
No rating, 125 minutes