South Korean film “The Silenced”, which was released in South Korea as “Gyeongseong School: The Lost Girls” in last weekend, looks like a typical genre piece at first. Its main background is a girl’s dormitory school, its story revolves around a sick, beautiful girl who has to adjust herself to this strict, isolated environment, and, not so surprisingly, there is a sinister mystery hovering around every dark corner of this seemingly ordinary place. These are indeed familiar stuffs reminiscent of many other similar horror films, but the movie establishes mood and suspense well in its stylish period setting, and it also has some surprises for you although it stumbles a bit during its third act.
Mainly because of her illness, Joo-ran (Park Bo-yeong) is taken to some exclusive girl’s dormitory school located in the middle of a remote forest area somewhere outside Gyeongseong (it is the old name of Seoul, by the way). While the Headmaster (Eom Ji-won) assures her new student that she will like this place, Joo-ran soon experiences a harsh treatment from the supervisor teacher (Park Seong-yeon) on her very first day at the school, and she is not welcomed much by many of her new schoolmates. For them, Joo-ran is just the new girl to fill the place originally belonging to a girl who recently left from them for a reason they do not know well.
Because the time is in the middle of the Japanese occupation era, the main purpose of the school is educating its girls as model Japanese citizens while improving their health. Every girl in the school has each own Japanese name while Japanese is frequently spoken in the classroom, and we also see the girls working on a big white sheet with the figure of the Korean peninsula filled with cherry blossoms. The Headmaster is about to pick two best students who will be sent to Tokyo for their better future, and Yeon-deok (Park So-dam) and Yuka (Kong Ye-ji) have been the front runners in the competition.
While Yuka is not very friendly to Joo-ran, Yeon-deok kindly approaches to Joo-ran, and they quickly become close friends. While there is a small, quiet lake where they can have some rest from their strict environment, there is also a dingy abandoned basement in the school where Yeon-deok used to spend time along with the girl who left the school before Joo-ran came. We see their friendship grow day by day, and it sometimes looks like they are a little more than mere friend to each other.
In the meantime, we also see considerable improvement in Joo-ran’s health. While getting the same medical treatments along with others, Joo-ran gets an unspecified additional treatment from time to time, and it seems to work with significantly good effects on her. She does not cough up blood any more, she looks a lot more sanguine compared to her initial pale appearance, and she also discovers the huge improvement of her physical ability during the physical education class on the playground. Everyone including her is amazed and surprised by this sudden change, and it is surely not a very good news for Yuka, who may lose her opportunity of going to Tokyo because of Joo-ran.
But, as expected from the very beginning, there is something wrong about the school. Two more girls are suddenly gone, but the Headmaster assures the students that everything is all right as usual. Becoming more suspicious about what is going on around her, Joo-ran begins to experience the disturbing hallucinations associated with two disappeared girls, and it becomes more possible that the Headmaster is hiding something from her students behind her sassy benevolent attitude. What really happened to those missing girl? Is it possibly associated with Joo-ran’s improved health? And why does a military officer come to the school?
The director Lee Hye-yeong, who previously directed a delightful coming-of-age/transgender comedy drama “Like a Virgin” (2006), steadily builds tension on the screen along with considerable attention to visuals. The color scheme in the film is often accentuated by the appearance of red color, and the drab interior environment of the school makes a striking visual contrast with the Headmaster’s sumptuous office which looks like a production designer’s wet dream. The relationship development between Joo-ran and Yeon-deok is convincingly depicted with tender sensitivity, and it eventually becomes the emotional anchor to hold for us even when the story takes an unexpected turn later.
Regardless of whether you like that plot turn in question or not (I do not dare to reveal it to you, by the way), it cannot be denied that the movie gives a nice opportunity for its lead actress Park Bo-yeong, who is believable in her character’s gradual transformation along the story. Park is also supported well by good supporting performers including Park so-dam, Kong Ye-ji, Joo Bo-bi, Park Seong-yeon, and Eom Ji-won, who certainly has a ball with her juicy shady character.
Clearly influenced from notable South Korean horror films such as “Whispering Corridors” (1998) and “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003), “The Silenced” tries to do something else within its familiar ground, though its attempts are not always successful. Many elements in the story do not make sense well together when you look back at them in the whole picture, and its third act is not very satisfying in my opinion. Despite such weak points, the movie is still an interesting horror film depending on atmosphere and character we can hold onto, and I think that is a good news, considering that we have not often come across a solid South Korean horror movie during recent years.