This is not a film that is easily reviewed. Dealing with an explosive topic — the physical and sexual abuse of children — and based on true events, it is one that cannot easily break the divide between the viewer’s own emotional response and a critical one. It’s fortunate, then, that Hwang Dong-hyuk’s direction is both thoughtful and forceful, worthy of the film’s text.
A new teacher, a sensitive and wiry young man by the name of Kang In-ho, is on his way to a new teaching role at the Ja-ae Academy. On his way he hits a deer, damaging his car. In a series of simultaneous cutaways, a young boy stands in front of a train and is killed. The tone of concern and innocence is immediately established as Kang stares at the corpse of the animal he has killed, shaken, while the child is viewed at a lonely distance. At a local repair shop he meets Yoo-jin, a seemingly vague figure, who hits his stationary car. She is a worker at the local Human Rights Centre, given to drink, and isn’t afraid to talk up her connections.
These two characters form an unlikely pair of heroes through the film, both needing to front up to their own inadequacies and emotions, as they become involved in protecting the children at the Academy who have been systematically and horribly abused by the other teaching staff. Their first meeting is almost comically played out, a brief note of humour set up to show their and the film’s emotional journey into involvement with something terrible and heartbreaking.
It is not an easy ride, this film. The abuse is harrowing to watch, though restrained and in no way explicit in execution. Divided into three parts of a sort, the first part is not altogether without directorial flourishes. Hwang seems to be aware that the school environment is one ripe for cinematic atmosphere, and uses many opportunities to explore this in ways that, in another movie, would pass for spooky and chilling. Suitably so, in some ways: the halls of the school are haunted by the memories of the children, and the camera glides around its environs in ways that underline a spiritual vacuum and isolation.
In this set-up Kang is set up as a troubled witness, at odds and apart from his colleagues. He is a single parent, with a child of his own to support, and very much aware of his own parental needs, and the need to keep his job. But he soon realises that passivity is not an option and, in one extraordinary scene, where he stands at a literal and figurative ‘outer’ while watching one staff member beat one of the children, he finally breaks into rage and becomes a propulsive figure to the plot.
This is a film about entitlement too: the entitlement of the rich and connected, who use their social standing to wreak havoc over those less fortunate. Here the children are literally silenced — deaf already, they are threatened with more violence should they ever ‘speak up’, and the connections of the headmaster (and his identical twin, a most unsettling dynamic) are far reaching, as he poses as a good Christian of moral purpose. The childen know no-one, the staff know every one.
For Kang and Yoo-jin, the struggle is to make the children — and to an extent, themselves — heard, and the film’s second third switches to a courtroom drama, full of twists and turns and complications. That the case is not entirely resolved at the film’s close is to be expected: this is not a film that wants the viewer to feel justice has been served, but to feel outrage, to demand something be done. But it must be noted that the film allows moments of happiness, and wonderful they are when they happen. These children, quite startlingly and terrifically played, are grey figures of sadness at the start inhabiting the dark shadows of the school, but by the film’s close, they are smiling, drenched in colour, healing.
Metaphors abound in this film, not the least of which is Mujin, a city bound in fog. Kang wanders into this, and the film’s final shot both separates it from him and shows his deep and abiding connection to the events over anything else. These moments, in the film’s final third, as society reacts with outrage at the sentences handed down by the court, draw the viewer into the outrage. It’s a clever thing: we are like Kang in the first third of the film, only able to watch and not act to stop the horror inflicted. By the film’s close we are called to action, and, indeed, this is what happened. With some 4 million in ticket sales at the local box office, the outrage felt led to the case being re-opened and a change in the laws.
An extraordinary film in many ways and one that sticks with you, as so many films try to. Usually a review on Heroic Cinema demands a starred rating based on some kind of pun or topic in the film, but to do so here would be not in keeping. Suffice to say it is a film you should see, full of brave performances from the children, and thoughtfully directed in a way that never flaunts its stylish nods, but always keeps to the topic at hand.
Silenced is screening at KOFFIA 2012 (late August through September) in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane — see the festival website for full details.