You will be aghast at what you will see in South Korean film “Silenced”, an angry movie about the horrid truth hidden beneath one school for the deaf kids. When the end credit rolls on the screen, you will be angry about the injustices depicted in the movie, while saddened by the fact that there is a very little justice for the weak like these young innocent kids, who are damaged by the atrocious adults who are supposed to take care of them.
What happened to the kids is something you hear from the media with disbelieving eyes. We usually ask ourselves; how could the people commit such horrible deeds? Can that really happen in our society? Though the movie is the fiction based on the bestseller novel written by Gong Jee-young, the novel itself was based on the real-life incident reported by the South Korean media in 2005. As depicted in the movie, it drew lots of attention from the people at that time, and there was the trial for this heinous crime later – but that was not the end of the story and there are still scars remained.
When we meet In-ho(Gong Yoo) for the first time, he is coming to the local area named Mujin as the new art teacher of the boarding school for the deaf students. While his daughter is taken care of by his mother in Seoul(his wife was dead), he lives alone in some shabby apartment. He does not particularly like his new job, but he needs a job for earning the money for his sick daughter. When the principle and the administration supervisor, the principle’s twin brother(both are played by Jang Gwang), demand In-ho to pay the considerable amount of money as the contribution for “school development fund” on his first day, he accepts their demand without question. It is not right thing to do, but he has no choice if he wants to keep his job.
However, it turns out that is not the only thing he has to deal with while working at this school. He sees one of the teachers savagely beating one of his students in the teachers’ office while other teachers ignore the abuse being committed right in front of them. At one night, he hears a strange sound from the ladies’ room when he is about to leave. He tries to find out who is behind the bathroom door, but he is soon interrupted by the night guard, who assures him that nothing happens. Later, he witnesses the other teacher abusing the other student with the washing machine at the basement – while the washing machine is turned on.
Now I make this school look like hell even compared to the Dickensian orphanage, but there are more terrible things. After deciding to do something for the kids he care about, In-ho works together with the human right activist Yoo-jin(Jeong Yu-mi), whom In-ho came across on his first day in Mujin due to a minor car accident. From three students under their protection, they are horrified to learn what has been hidden behind the school. The teachers, including the principle, have not just abused them and others; they also have sexually molested them for several years. While In-ho and Yoo-jin listen to them, we see what happened to these kids. There are several horrifying flashbacks which made me and the other audiences wince, but they are made with considerable restraint while never exploiting young performers as well as losing its gut-wrenching effectiveness.
If you have some knowledge about the South Korean society, you will probably have some good idea about what will happen next. In-ho and Yu-jin want these disgusting people to be arrested, but, as shown in his expensive office, the principle is a well-respected member of the local society. He is also an elder of the local church(that means we will see some unpleasant side of Korean Christians), and he has some powerful connections to the local authorities. On the day when he comes to the office for the giving the money for the school development fund, In-ho happens to see a local cop stopping by the school for his money. Even when they try to report this crime to the other local government officials, they ignore them with bureaucratic indifference while saying it is not their job due to the jurisdiction rule.
Eventually, after the kids’ story goes out on TV, the principle and others are quickly arrested and the trial soon follows, but In-ho and Yu-jin find themselves more helpless as the time goes by. The kids are willing to testify what happened to them, and there are some evidences to support their testimonies, but it is possible that their abusers will not be properly punished in the end. The counsel for the accused, a former law official, is well-connected to judges and prosecutors; as a custom inside the South Korean justice system, they give some advantages to him because it is his first trial after leaving his office. The kids’ parents are poor or disabled, so they can be easily persuaded to withdraw the suit on the behalf of their children. They even approach to In-ho, who has been in financially difficult situation.
The director Hwang Dong-hyeock wisely does not hurry his story. While providing the good atmosphere with the hazy fog covering the town, he effectively conveys the frustration inside the story. Though his character is rather bland and passive, Gong Yoo does a passable job as an ordinary man who tries to do the right thing while knowing that there is little he can do for the abused kids. Jeong Yu-mi is trapped in her flat character who mostly functions as the mouthpiece of the story, but she does as much as she can.
The movie really belongs to three remarkable young performers with little acting experience(Kim Hyeon-soo, Jeong In-seo, and Baek Seung-hwan) who steal and hold the show with their harrowing performances as the abused victims. They do not talk at all, but, only with their sign language and facial expressions, they poignantly express lots of pain and anger as the tragic heart of the movie. Thanks to their exceptional performances, several crucial scenes in the movie work powerfully, such as when one of them has to prove that she is not lying at all.
The movie is not free from its flaws. Despite its good intention, it sometimes stumbles with a heavy-handed approach. While the villains are played effectively by good actors, they are just mean and despicable in one-dimensional way. They seem to come from the other movie whenever confronting the other characters. The court scenes have some awkwardness although it is less stiff than other South Korean movies featuring the court scenes. The finale is overlong and a little too melodramatic while emphasizing the characters’ bitterness they have to face at the end of their struggle.
Nevertheless, “Silenced” has enough power to draw you into its anger, and you will identify with its indignation toward the unfairness in South Korean society. As reflected in the epilogue in the movie, the abusers were only sentenced to light punishment, and they did not even go to the jail. How could they let that happen? Will such a horrible thing happen again? Sad thing is, it is really hard for us to prevent the world from changing ourselves, let alone change the world.