At the end of September last year a controversial and disturbing film hit the Korean cinema circuit that triggered a wave of public outrage. Petitions were signed, investigations were reopened, and even the Korean government stepped in and voiced their concern over the matter in question. Hwang Dong-hyuk's "Silenced" (aka "Silenced") was the cause of it all as his unadulterated telling of the sexual abusive that occurred at a school for the disabled, pierced the public's consciousness and started the movement for change and awareness.
The film is adapted from Gong Ji-young's 2009 novel "Dogani" that tells the horrific true story about the molestation of a number of hearing-impaired students in school in Gwangju. The film depicts the events as they occurred from 2000 to 2005, during which a number of students at Inhwa School were repeatedly sexual abused and physically beaten. The assailants included a number of the school's faculty and, despite being charged and sentenced for their crimes, the public was outraged due the apparent gap between their crimes and the punishments they received.
"Silenced" specifically sets out to highlight the inadequacy of Korea's stance on sexual offenders and the bureaucratic favouring of well-connected individuals whose crimes and wrongdoings are downplayed in the face of the legal system. How it achieves this is two-fold, by graphically portraying children's traumatic experiences and exposing the blatant hypocrisy of public organisations and their abuse of the power.
The latter was constructed through a combination of subtitle symbols and actions that formulated a persuasive and emotive reaction of hatred, fury, and resentment. In the film, the devious actions of the headmaster and his co-conspirators are presented in such a way as to leave to doubt that, not only are these individuals guilty of their crimes, but that their actions are rooted in the publics positions of power they hold. There is nothing in the film that suggests that the abusers are mental ill or are suffering from some form of psychological condition. To do so would imply that the audience would have to grant them some form of emotional sympathy, an feeling that would work against the film's message and its intended reaction.
My point here is that the forces of antagonism working in the film are targeted towards "the system" as a hypocritical organisation that favours internal stability and functions to minimise external threats to its members. The education system, the Korean judicial system, and even religious institutions are the real antagonists in the film as they harbour and defend their own interests rather that uphold the values and principles they were founded on. It's an important point to outline and it by no means undermines the cruelty the children suffered. The public's response to the film was not that such twisted individuals exists or how to detect them, it was that there needs be a reform of organisational structure and procedure in order to protect those whom they serve and punish those who abuse their positions of power.
There have been many Korean films that deal with corruption and injustice. "Silenced" is one such that just so happens to havea tangible link to reality in the form of the school itself. Protests were held outside the school as it was discovered that members of the faculty were still working there. It was something that the public could direct their dissatisfaction and outrage at. From their authorities were almost forced to re-examine not only the events that transpired between 2000 and 2005, but to act on public's cry for harsher sentencing with dealing with sexual assault. Issues such as religious hypocrisy, and to a lesser degree organizational corruption, are not something that can easily be identified and targeted and as such it is those areas that were not given the same level of attention as the more identifiable and real-world existence of the actual school.
The representation of religion in film is particularly interesting. Throughout the film the antagonists are accompanied by a spew of both overt and subtle references to their religious orientation. This apparent contradiction is a harder pill to swallow for the Korean public to swallow or tackle directly. Its presence in the film raises strong socio-psychological questions that challenge not only the institution of religion in Korea itself, but also the meaningfulness and authority of religious organisations as a product of social consciousness. Religion, or rather the projection of values associated with religion, in "Silenced" is not dished out evenly as there is little to suggest that our protagonists are so inclined. Again, there is an uncomfortable dispersion of morality and righteousness as the viewer is presented with a contradiction of actions associations. In this sense, the film makes good use of irony, as it is the seemingly non-religious who are enacting the values and morals that should openly be held by those who identify themselves with Christianity and the faith.
Our hero, the new teacher Kang In-ho, is somewhat mute on the moral front as although he is the force that starts the movement for justice, he himself is somewhat passive as hero. He too is a victim of the system, as his choices he makes towards achieving justice for the children is not so much portrayed through action but the personal ramifications he has to battle with. He largely assists the children indirectly, and is actually somewhat inadequate with helping them directly. For example, when Kang does actively involve himself he is reduced to simple violence as he is unable to enact the justice he wishes to see. After a clearly showing of a personal dilemma, Kang runs down the school's corridor and smashes the pot plant over one of the teacher's head.
The "system" speaks over the individual and Kang's personal acknowledgement of his shortcomings comes about in the film's final scenes. Jang steps into the on-going riot with a picture of the recently deceased boy and shouts his name with sadness and regret. While doing so he is almost reborn as the riot police's water cannon's spray over him, a baptism of sorts that cleanses him of his failings. It's a powerful scene that accents our hero's personal journey through a story that is heavily focused on depicting the suffering of the children.
I have not come across a Korean film that has been so vivid in its depiction of child abuse. The scenes are graphic, shocking, and sadistic. There are a number of moments that are so emotional charged that some viewers will struggled to watch. Indeed, its powerful stuff, and the disturbing nature of these scenes raise questions about the child actors themselves and there understanding of their role in them. Some have voice criticism against the film saying that the abuse portrayed on screen pushes the limit, even going as far as to say that they counter the film's message. Dark is the film overall, harsh shadows and lighting paint the film as more of horror at times, and the abuse scenes themselves serve more to bolster the viewer's hatred towards the assailants than to create sympathy for the victims. There are scenes in the courtroom and when the girls were being interviewed that, at lest for me personal, triggered a greater feeling of sympathy than watching them being raped and beaten. In this vein, the scenes might have leaned too much towards supporting negative emotions towards the assailants than positive ones towards the victims. "Silenced" definitely positions itself as persuasive argument for the punishment of those involved rather than the protection and care for those who were victimised. It's a subtle ideological favouring that warrants examination, especially in the light of the huge reaction the film received from the public.
"Silenced" was an affective and emotional journey that didn't fail to entertain or educate. Its themes of injustice and social responsibility were clearly depicted and the Korea public reacted strongly. I found the their reaction to the film to be a fascinating phenomenon as they attempted to enact the very justices the film was unable to satisfy within its story. However, while the change the public was crying out for is a positive step, I would caution against simplifying the film's message to what the public react to. Although the film was persuasively constructed to trigger such a response, there were other agents at work that spoke to issues/problems that challenge the individual as an active member of society and not just the agency of corrupt or inadequate organisations. By in large, "Silenced" is harsh mirror to Korean society in which the tainted image within must be seen in its entirety, as well as the individual active presence within it.
-C.J. Wheeler (Chriscjw@gmail.com)
Available to order on DVD from YESASIA
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Silenced": Innocent Victims, Embedded Criminals, and Korean Society."
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