The Silenced (2015)

Writer & Director: Lee Hae-young
Cast: Park Bo-young, Uhm Ji-won, Park So-dam.

I would imagine that The Silenced would be a very confusing movie for most non Koreans to watch. I am not Korean, but as I mentioned a few times throughout this blog, I have lived in Korea and am somewhat familiar with the country’s culture, history, and beliefs. I am also (barely) conversational in the language enough to follow some basics, and recognize when the language is Korean or not. These skills helped me follow the film, but without them I would have been lost, or at least many subtleties or details would have escaped me completely.

The Silenced is a hard film to describe, as it changes genre at least a couple of times during its swift 99 minute runtime. The beginning of the film is a boarding school drama, which eventually gives way to a supernatural thriller, only to end up as a somewhat superhero movie/government conspiracy revenge mystery. Definitely a hard movie to categorize, an even harder film to describe and analyze.

Set in 1938 in Gyeongseong (Seoul), the film opens with Shizuko (Park Bo-young) arriving at a secluded boarding school for sickly girls. Shizuko suffers from TB, so the classic coughing blood into a white handkerchief scene is included a few times. The headmistress of the school (Uhm Ji-won) is kind to Shizuko, and even encourages her to attempt an alternate cure for her illness. While most of the girls in the school are cruel or avoid the new arrival completely, one kind classmate, Kazue (Park So-dam), befriends the outsider. Then girls start to go missing, someone develops superhuman powers, visions begin, and then things get weird(er). This is a Korean supernatural mystery/thriller after all.

So if this is a Korean movie, why are the names Japanese? The movie is clearly made for Korean audiences who understand and know about the time period and the context of the setting, but non natives may not know this story as well, or at all. The film takes place during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. Koreans hate the Japanese to this day because of this occupation, and this movie is only one more brick in the wall of anti Japanese rhetoric and discourse. I once went with a friend to the Prison History Museum in Seoul, and our tour guide began the tour by making sure that we were aware and in agreement that the Japanese were the most deplorable peoples on Earth. Back to the film, all the people who are bad (and boy are they bad, even hitting and beating young schoolgirls) are Japanese. Viewers who don’t speak these languages may not realize the importance to the plot when a character suddenly switches from speaking Korean to Japanese. The subtitles don’t indicate any change, and the film loses some of its impact because of this.

The performances are quite good, even if some (especially the headmistress) sometimes verge on the over the top and melodramatic. The special effects are convincing. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking. A lot of work clearly went into the art direction, set and costume design, location choices, and even the shooting, with careful consideration paid to color, camera angles, and framing. The film is overall a fun ride and boredom never sets in. Confusion? Yes. Plot points shift and change and twists run wild. A general WTF quality permeates the viewing experience. Fans of Asian cinema will probably enjoy the film, as I did. It overall works, even if it does seem to be just another anti-Japanese propaganda piece. Hey, at least it’s a fun one!

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