Monday, August 6, 2012

2012 KOFFIA Review: Silenced (Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2011)

Silenced is screening at the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia this month.

Despite being met with as much controversy as the novel it is adapted from (Gong Ji-young’s Dogani, which unearthed the true story of the accusations made against teachers in Gwangju for abusing their students), Silenced became a box office success in Korea following a strong word of mouth. Having just been devastated by this film, I can assure you that it is one not to be missed. It is for people not of the faint of heart and willing to digest some pretty horrific acts of sexual abuse toward young children – and be warned director Hwang Dong-hyuk does not hold back. It is graphic, unsettling, maddening, and very sad.

With the knowledge that it is based on true events, the film is particularly harrowing, and though some scenes are over-melodramatic and somewhat oversimplified and rushed, especially the early establishing ones, there is much emphasis placed on the key dramatic moments – the scenes of abuse, the children’s testimonies (and the three main child actors give excellent performances), the courtroom sequences and the protests that result from the convictions and sentencing.

 The film’s endearing hero is Kang In-Ho (Gong Yoo), a newly appointed teacher at Ja-ae Academy, a boarding school for hearing-impaired children. His wife has recently passed away, and he has an ill daughter staying with his mother. He is trying to save enough money for her medical treatment. On his first day at the school, he immediately senses there is something amiss with some of the children, who don’t respond to his lesson and seem distant and suspicious of him. He is introduced to the identical twin principal and director of administration of the school (both portrayed by Jang Gwang), and is appalled to learn of the accepted disciplinary method of one of the dorm superintendents.

In Ho soon becomes involved in the lives of several students; Yeon-Doo (Kim Hyun-Soo), a talented artist and orphan, Yoo-Ri (Jung In-Seo), quiet and diagnosed with a mental disorder, and Min-Soo (Baek Seung-Hwan), a headstrong young man whose younger brother was recently hit and killed by a train after running away from Ja-ae Academy, and learns that they are the victims of not only of the harsh discipline he has witnessed but also unfathomable actions of violent sexual abuse. This abuse stretches all the way to the worst offender, the principal, a well-regarded public servant and Christian man.

In Ho makes contact with a woman he met when he entered Mujin, Yoo-Jin (Jung Yu-Mi), an employee at the Mujin Human Rights Centre, and they fight to try and have these men found guilty of the acts. As they learn, collecting the evidence and supporting these scared deaf children as they testify is not the hardest battle, it is getting the assistance from the district police and the education board, and overcoming the heinous corruption standing in their way as the story begins to gather media attention.

The film was so affecting that it has sparked outrage both locally and internationally, not just because of the atrocities in the school but also the highly corrupt justice system and the professionals - detectives, attorneys and judges alike – who collaborated to cover it up and secure reduced sentences for the accused. As one watches this film, it is hard not to feel emotion boiling inside. It is near impossible to imagine how these unmerciful monsters could live with themselves after what they did to these poor children, and how anyone could live with allowing them to get away with it. While the film itself has some issues, this story deserves to be told, and it is done so effectively.

Silenced was a film difficult to digest and not knowing anything about it before viewing, and not being aware that it was based on true events, ensured it packed an emotional punch. Technically, it is sound, the performances are mostly strong - Gong-Yoo wasn’t particularly emotive a lot of the time, but he was suited to the role because of his kind face, convincing determination and the fact that he effectively relays his torn conscience between his own family and the children he promised to help.

There were some effective reveals through the altered structure. The early captures of In Ho driving towards a fog-covered Mujin (signifying the obscured morals to come) are reminiscent of a Hichcockian thriller. As the children are revealing their abuse we learn more about sequences that initially didn’t strike as being significant because they are told from a different perspective.

Director Hwang builds suspense, shifts genres, offers up twists as new revelations are made in the case, but not before counteracting them with devastating blows, and keeps the story compelling to the end. There are a couple of scenes that nearly had me in tears. We see these vulnerable and helpless youngsters, taken advantage of by the people they trust with their well being and education, trapped in an inescapable prison. These crimes spur a sense of resilience within the children and a society who start to back them, and it makes for powerful and affecting cinema.

Sydney - Sunday 26th August, 8.45pm, Melbourne - Sun 9th September, 9.00pm

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