[HanCinema's Korea Joa] "The Silenced" BIFF Review
By Lisa Espinosa | Published on
On October 2nd, 2015, "The Silenced" aired as part of the 2015 Busan International Film Festival in Busan's Haeundae Megabox Theaters. As part of KOFICE's Korea Joa 2015 project, HanCinema attended the screening and would like to thank KOFICE for the opportunity.
"The Silenced" is a film whose plot can be dissected into two contrasting parts: the first two-thirds that is alluring and full of promise, and the last third that quickly declines into disappointing predictability. The two parts are decorated with gifted actors, insightful filming, and very marked themes of friendship, sacrifice, and evil. Set in Japanese-occupied Korea, "The Silenced" focuses on a girls' boarding house and sanitorium where strange things happen to its sickly students. It is the mystery of the boarding house that drives the plot and when that mystery is dispelled an hour through the film, all of the intrigue disappeared with it. Instead, "The Silenced" becomes an action thriller rather than a mystery-tinged story exploring wartime friendship and hardships.
In 1938, a young teenager, Cha Joo-ran (Park Bo-young), comes to the Gyeongseong Boarding School to recover her declining health while her guardians flee to Japan, the supposed land of plenty and promise during the Korean occupation. Run by the ambitious headmistress (Uhm Ji-won), the boarding house follows a strict regimen to bring these girls back to health. Amidst wartime tension, broken families, and illness, Joo-ran finds solace in her friendship with goal-driven Hong Yeong-deok (Park So-dam), the only girl who will befriend her. Together they investigate the behavior changes in and the disappearances of their classmates and discover a truth that is horrifying – unfortunately, it is founded in a plot twist that needed more creativity and variation to be truly entertaining.
Director Lee Hae-yeong also wrote the script for "The Silenced" as he had the other films he directed. This is his first venture into this mystery/thriller genre with dual roles to play. His directorial style is geared towards highlighting the imagery in his writing and in the very specific use of color, especially the color red - a clever play. In literature, the color red is powerful indeed. It can mean life, death, health, sickness, danger, or the start of something new. In "The Silenced" it means all of these things and becomes an indicator of imminent change. Park Bo-young's character Joo-ran first appears in a red dress, the sign of her future sacrifice both emotional and otherwise. Throughout the film, red clothing, tea, and even blood becomes the harbinger for change, good and bad. Red is contrasted with the muted color palette of the boarding house, the girls' clothing, and the dim lighting.
The use of language was ingenious. Japanese is the public language of power in 1938. Orders are given in Japanese as are formal announcements. Native Korean is used for emotional expression and everyday discussion. A whole world of political tensions hibernated throughout the film and was never used despite the clean setup. These unexploited tensions were found in the situations of the abandoned girls and the use of language to indicate power.
Although there is a tight air of mystery in this film, the heart of the story is based in friendship. These two friends stick together in time of war and difficulty, poor health, and social ostracism; or they learn to by the film's end. Friendship sustains them, but its fluid nature also terrifies them as much as the strange happenings in the boarding house. Hardship molds and changes the girls and their means of interacting with each other. This is what "The Silenced" excels at: depicting the friendship and how it is woven into the thriller tapestry. When focused on leading ladies Joo-ran and Yeon-deok, this film is at its best. Images from past and present parallel each other in the mind's eye of the characters as Joo-ran and Yeon-deok grow close and also as they sort through the unnerving mysterities of the boarding house. When the focus shifts away from the girls is when the plot weakens. It turns to undeveloped characters and ideas and relies on violence and cheap thrills to retain attention.
Leading ladies Park Bo-young and Park So-dam helped carry this film through thick and thin. Park Bo-young has a long and well-established career as a powerhouse young actress and "The Silenced" is another film that she can claim as a success. Her character endures incredible stress and change throughout the film and she depicts that change with riveting intensity. Park So-dam, while not as high-profile as Bo-yeong, is also a shoulder upon which this film stands as the character overcomes past trauma and changes for the better. This may be her breakout work. While Uhm Ji-won was strong, her character was not and no amount of good acting could've saved the headmistress from that.
The most disappointing aspect of this film was the lack of follow through in focus and the overkill ending. It could've (and should've) made its statement about friendship without the tacked on epilogue. It ignored many of the themes it introduced in the first half as the second half rolled around. Wartime stress was a tool rather than an undercurrent of tension as it had been at the start. Adults were poorly developed, then overused.
Throughout its runtime "The Silenced" delivered a polished production, insightful camerawork, a lovely score, solid acting, and beautiful locations. Its plot did not match up to the physical execution as often happens with overambitious plots that try to include too many elements: wartime, friendship, mystery, politics. In the end, it was an entertaining watch, but not a satisfying one.
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Journalist, drama lover, and foodie, Lisa enjoys exploring Korea, speaking the language, and soaking in all that dramaland has to offer. Her Korean husband laughs that she knows more than he ever will about dramas and K-pop. Lisa Espinosa can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.