Thursday, May 16, 2013

Movie Review: Silenced (2011)

Grade: B

Silenced is difficult to watch, and it should be.

Based on a novel that was inspired by real events at a Korean boarding school for deaf children, Silenced follows a well-meaning teacher who joins the school’s staff only to discover that his employers have a long history of brutal abuse against their charges.

The movie’s running time is neatly split split in two. As creepily atmospheric as any horror film, the first half is set in a world of unsettling shadows tinged with the unnatural. From the uncanny likeness between the principal and his twin brother to the otherworldly glow of the jellyfish in his office aquarium, nothing at the school seems quite right from the very beginning. Silenced’s second half morphs into a brightly lit (but no less troubling) courtroom thriller charting the legal struggles to end the cruelty at Ja-ae Academy.

Silenced’s greatest strength is the performances of its young stars, all of whom do powerful, heartbreaking work. And yes, drama goofball Gong Yoo is also good—if a bit more blank than strictly necessary—in his dramatic role as Kang In Ho, the new schoolteacher.

Kang In Ho doesn’t have a lot going for him. He’s a recently widowed artist who has never been able to make a living from his drawings, and he has left his sickly daughter in his mother’s care to accept the position at Ja-ae. Making matters worse, his family is left all but destitute when one of the school’s administrators demands that In Ho make a huge contribution to the school’s “development fund” as a condition of his employment.

When he realizes what’s happening at the academy, In Ho bands together with an area social worker (a cute but underutilized Jang Yoo Mi) to raise the alarm that something’s wrong. They’re met with indifferent silence from every official they contact. It’s only the publicity garnered by the students’ taped testimony that makes the establishment take notice—and even then, they’re only willing to do what it takes to protect their jobs, not what it takes to bring justice.

Silenced spent several weeks on top of the Korean box office and even spawned a legal reforms. It also attracted a fair amount of attention in America, having a limited theatrical release and being reviewed in several mainstream publications before finding its way to both Netflix and Hulu.

One of the common criticisms Western reviewers have of Silenced is that it dilutes the children’s story by spending so much time with Kang In Ho. But I think these reviewers missed one of the issues at the heart of the film: This is not a Precious-style story of the abuses suffered by one individual. It’s the story of a whole constellation of wrongs that allowed the long-term, institutional abuse of some of society’s most vulnerable members. It’s about cronyism and corruption and the failure of the Korean court system to protect a whole class of forgotten children.

And the kids weren’t the only ones who were silenced by the status quo at Ja-ae Academy. The movie introduces us to some of the school’s cruelest teachers, but it also hints that other employees might have known what was happening and chosen to do nothing about it. After all, the school’s administration worked hard to guarantee they kept silent. Through In Ho’s mom, we hear about the principal’s great connections and how the strength of his recommendation got former employees coveted jobs in Seoul schools. There’s also evidence that the perpetrators intentionally sought out the destitute and unemployable to work at the academy, ensuring both their loyalty and dependence. Even the payment In Ho was forced to make to the school development fund was a tool used to this end; it put new hires at a financial disadvantage and made them all the more reliant on the Jae-ae for their income. All these things ensured that any potential rescuers would face the same ugly truth that In Ho’s mom hurls at him in the middle of a fight: “If you want to take care of yourself and your family, you can’t always just do right and speak up.”

In Ho’s storyline is essential to the movie, because it shows him doing what other people had done before him—choosing between remaining silent for the sake of his own well being or speaking out to protect children to whom he had no real ties. One of the movie’s most visceral scenes finds In Ho making up his mind about what road to take. He stands at the principal’s office door, holding a potted orchid his mother wanted him to pass along. Another teacher walks out of the office with a golf club in one hand and the collar of a weeping, bloody boy in another. In Ho is frozen for a moment, weighed down by both the orchid and the knowledge that stepping forward would mean losing his place at the school and being unable to take responsibility for his family. In Ho’s silence would have been the movie’s most dangerous, but not its most surprising.

I do agree with one complaint that comes up in most Western reviews of Silenced: its depiction of sexual violence is unnecessarily detailed and takes up far too much screen time. There’s value in an unflinching examination of the kind of brutality at play here, but to an American eye, the many scenes of gleeful adults molesting children crosses the line between shocking and prurient.

The movie’s roots as a novel are evident in some improbable tidiness, but sometimes this is used to good effect. Its first scene shows In Ho’s journey to Ja-ae Academy, intercutting shots of him driving through a tunnel with scenes of a young boy stumbling along train tracks toward another tunnel. When In Ho hits something in the road, there’s a moment of uncertainty about just what it was—an animal, or the boy? With this scene, the movie draws a line between In Ho and the school’s abusers; his actions killed an innocent, just like theirs did. It’s a reminder that, as an adult and a teacher, the safety of his students in his in hands in a very practical, physical way.

Silenced is both an enthralling and an important movie, if not a perfect one. It can even be read as an indictment of the Civil Law criminal system (which was ably explained on Ask a Korean a few years ago). Unlike the Common Law system used in America and elsewhere, there is no government recourse in civil law—once the movie’s abusers were able to buy off the parents of the students involved, the case could have disappeared forever from the courts, leaving the school’s administration able to continue the cycle of harming children and paying adults to look the other way. This fate was only avoided by a stroke of luck, but the fact that it could have happened at all is deeply upsetting.

Parts of this movie will make your skin crawl, and other parts will make you want to throw something very hard. But when it’s finally over you can go read articles at The Diplomat and The Guardian about the good it might just have done in the world, and realize that maybe it was all worth it in the end.


  1. I agree this was a shocking but important movie. Also that I feel the scenes depicting the violence towards the children seemed to be more drawn out and graphic than necessary. I did have to fast forward through a lot of it. Even some moments when the audience wasn't shown the horrors but only heard the agonizing screams and whimperings of the children - I couldn't sit through it. I appreciate that it must take so much bravery to recreate those horrifying events in order to tell such an important story.

  2. I watched this movie as soon as I could find it. I dreaded the content but knew I had to see it. As much as I am glad the horrors were discovered, in reality, I know it is still happening some place else in the world as I type these words. Man's inhumanity to man has always astounded me.

    To get to a lighter subject, I also watched it to see Gong Yoo in a serious role. He was wonderful. Not since Coffee Prince have I seen him in something meaningful and worthy of his talent. I do hope that he will continue to look for these types of roles. I'm not saying he shouldn't do lighter fare, just that he is capable of so much more. The children in the cast were amazing as well.

  3. Yeeeeep. This one was hard to watch. I had to do it in almost 4 or 5 sittings because I couldn't keep myself still long to finish it in one gulp. I'd only heard some talk about the movie acting as a catalyst for reform. That really is great to know though.

  4. The principles are the worlds greatest creepers. That scene where his head pops out over the toilet cubicle scared the lights out of me. And the glowing jellyfish... Oh God. But it's inspiring the change that actually came out of a movie, that's very rare and quite wonderful.

  5. Thanks for the great review Amanda. I will have to check this out some time. Thank you also for the links to the news sites etc. You're awesome!

  6. I really appreciate the links to the articles detailing some of the changes the movie has helped create. It was such a disturbing watch (I was also pretty shocked about how explicit some of the scenes were -- though I wondered if the director was trying to drive home how shocking the crimes were since they'd been so easily dismissed in court) and I was glad to hear it's had a positive impact.

  7. I downloaded it. I watched the first half of the movie and had to take a break. It was quite hard to watch, especially because you know that it really happened. Of course I plan to finish the movie nevertheless (preferably when I am done with my school stuff), but it is quite hard to watch in one sitting. I don't even know how I am going to write a review about this movie because my reviews always have the section of 'what I liked about it' and 'like' really isn't the word I could use for this film.

  8. (Re: your side comments on JOJ12 - Not sure how weird the plot might go. A little weird but I'm sticking with it for a while. However, you should join the dark side and start Monstar. I swore I wouldn't pick up another airing drama, but I totally failed this morning. Sadly, Viki still hasn't posted the ep, so it's DC or GoodDrama for me. Terrible quality after being spoiled with DF for so long...)

    1. Viki's been having problems lately—they were down most of Saturday. I just wish Dramafever would carry everything...

      I'm also being tempted by She Is Wow, which has good tumblr buzz. (And, like Monstar, is blissfully short at 12 episodes.) What to do? I hate to drop a currently airing show, but I have to *force* myself to sit down and watch the new episodes. Life is too short for that :b