Sometimes, the drama surrounding a film’s release overshadows the drama contained within the film itself. Usually this is a bad sign, but in the case of Silenced, it was exactly what the filmmakers had hoped for.
The movie opens with the main character In-ho (Gong Yoo) driving south to take up a position as an art teacher at a school for the deaf. He arrives filled with idealistic fervor, but is shocked at the state of his young students. With haunted, anguished expressions, they are withdrawn in his presence, and some of them have frightening bruises and cuts on their faces and bodies. When one night he witnesses another teacher locking a student in a washing machine, he intervenes and takes the student to a hospital. There he learns that the student, and many others, have been sexually abused over a period of years by the school’s teachers and administrators.
Silenced is based on a real-life incident, which makes its grim story far more chilling than it would be otherwise. But the work’s focus is not so much on the unveiling of the crime, which had already been written about in the Korean press in the mid-2000s. The heart of the story lies in the victims’ efforts to bring their aggressors to justice in the courts. In this they are helped by In-ho and a human rights activist named Yu-jin (Jung Yu-mi), who both make considerable personal sacrifices in order to devote themselves to this cause.
The combination of focused direction, heartbreaking subject matter and the fact that we know it is based on a true story makes Silenced a particularly intense viewing experience. It’s not surprising that audiences should be unsettled by the work, but virtually all observers were caught off guard by the tremendous public interest and outpouring of emotion that greeted the film’s release. To a certain extent, the film owed its runaway success (4.7 million tickets sold) to the online novel on which it was based. Written by one of Korea’s most famous writers, Gong Ji-young, The Crucible (which is also the film’s original Korean title) recorded 16 million hits when it was published in serial format on the internet in 2009. Many of these readers were the ones who saw the film early and helped to generate positive word of mouth.
But despite its wide readership, the novel did not have nearly the real-world impact on society as this film did. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of the film medium itself, which draws in large crowds of people who sit and experience the film together in communal fashion. In its first 2 to 3 weeks on release, Silenced produced a storm of commentary on the internet, together with louder and louder calls for something to be done to address the issues raised by the film. Leaping to attention, local politicians quickly drafted and passed a bill to provide additional protection to the disabled and other people at risk of being sexually abused.
Credit for one of 2011’s most heartening successes should be shared by director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who brought a particular dramatic intensity to the work, and its outstanding cast. Popular star Gong Yoo is an effective lead in what is by far his most interesting performance to date. His empathy for the children, and his struggles with self-doubt in his weaker moments, are wholly convincing. Although given a somewhat smaller role, Jung Yu-mi — one of Korea’s most talented and underappreciated young actresses — imparts a strong sense of moral outrage and determination that serves as the film’s backbone. Finally, one must direct applause towards actor Jang Gwang who, in portraying the diabolical twin administrators who head the school, became briefly Korean’s most hated man. One hopes that the visceral emotions elicited by his performance won’t adversely affect his future acting career.