Jun 21, 2012|
(Korea) Drama. Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk. Starring Gong Yoo, Jeong Yu-mi, Baek Seung-hwan. Category III. 125 minutes. Opened Jun 21 (exclusively at UA Cinemas).
Based on Korean author Gong Ji-young’s online novel “Dogani,” an exposé piece charting the real-life events of physical and sexual abuse in a Korean school for deaf children and their subsequent trial, “Silenced” is as far away from a lighthearted watch as a film can be. Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk as his sophomore feature (following “My Father”), the picture quickly became one of the most watched Korean films in 2011 upon its domestic release, and is a thought-provoking, rage-inducing exercise. With a solid screenplay, talented ensemble and sophisticated direction serving as effective devices, “Silenced” achieves its ambition to raise awareness of a social injustice existing in Korean society; however, its disturbing re-enactions of the brutal crimes suffered by the victims have stirred controversy among viewers and critics, and may hinder the film’s appeal to a wider audience.
The film opens with a gripping prologue juxtaposing protagonist Kang In-ho’s (Gong Yoo) arrival in the small, foggy city of Mujin and the suicide of a boy on the local railway. An unnerving atmosphere pervades the whole town, where a boarding school for hearing-impaired children quietly sits. In-ho, a single father, is the school’s new art teacher, but his excitement fades on the first day when he’s forced to make a big “donation” to the school in order to keep his new employment. Before long, he realizes that something seriously wrong is going on here—from a coworker atrociously beating up schoolboy Min-su (Baek Seung-hwan) in front of a group of indifferent teachers to the midnight screams coming out of the bathroom. After rescuing Yeon-du (Kim Hyeon-soo) from a female instructor’s corporal abuse, In-ho enlists the help of local social worker Seo Yu-jin (Jeong Yu-mi) to attend to the wounded student and investigate the incident. But what they uncover is beyond their imagination: many of the students there have been suffering from chronic and constant beatings, threats and rapes at the hands of faculty members.
The second half of the movie deals with the uphill battle that In-ho and Yu-jin face in the process of trying to bring the three primary perpetrators—the principal and his two staffers—to justice. The principal is a respected figure in the local Christian community (WTF?!) whose powerful tentacles spread widely throughout Mujin’s legal system; and here, we see how corruption and cronyism have weaved a network that protects the guilty.
Gong, most recognized for his romantic-comedy leading roles, is wonderfully convincing as reluctant hero In-ho, who overcomes some internal struggles before leading the crusade for justice. Meanwhile, Jeong perfectly embodies the feisty and resilient Yu-jin. But it’s the trio of child actors playing three of the victims who really shine. The performances by Baek, Kim and Jung In-suh (playing Yuri, who, on top of having a hearing disability, is slightly mentally challenged)—mainly carried out by sign-language, facial expressions and body language—provide the film with a harrowing realism. In addition, the tidy editing job and eerie score add a strong horror-film temperament to it. It seems that while Hwang made a wise move to employ a mainstream formula in the film, he also opted for a sizable dose of sensationalism that’s prevalent in contemporary Korean cinema. It’s a rather questionable decision, given that the hauntingly graphic abuse scenes will offend some audience members instead of drawing them in, and aren’t necessary to tell the story.
The real events, which took place in Gwangju from 2001 to 2005, wrapped up with the criminals walking away with extremely light penalties. After “Dogani” was published in 2009, the case gained huge publicity; and the movie—which even President Lee Myung-bak has watched—has pushed the waves even further, shocking the entire nation. Last October, due to the uproar created by “Silenced,” the country’s National Assembly passed a revised bill on sexual crimes and the case was reopened. Despite its flaws, the film sheds a much-needed light on child abuse, sexual abuse and the nation’s justice system, which resonates far beyond its own setting. And for that, it deserves recognition and respect.