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Based on the novel “Dokani” by Kong Ji Young and charting shocking real life events and sexual abuse at a school for hearing-impaired children, “Silenced” (a.k.a. “The Crucible”) emerged as the most controversial and harrowing Korean film of 2011. Directed by Hwang Dong Hyuk (“My Father”), the film is a bold attempt to raise public awareness about the case and to highlight disturbing flaws in the Korean educational and legal systems, focusing on the true story of how a teacher and social worker, played by Gong Yoo (“Finding Mr. Destiny”) and Jung Yoo Mi (“Oki’s Movie”) struggled to bring the perpetrators to justice. With strong performances from child actors Baek Seung Hwan, Kim Hyun Soo and Jeong In Seo, the film was a deserved success both critically and commercially, pulling in more than 4 million admissions at the domestic box office, and more importantly also led to a changing of laws and a reopening of the actual case.
The film begins with Gong Yoo as Ho, a single father trying to raise his sick daughter, who finds a job as a teacher at a school for hearing-impaired children in Mujin, a remote town known mainly for its fog. Upon arrival, the earnest young man is shocked when it’s politely made clear by the headmaster twin brothers (Jang Gwang, “Vampire Prosecutor”) that he has to make a sizable financial ‘donation’ to the school in return for his position. Settling into life at the school, he quickly realises that something is wrong, as he witnesses children being beaten and hears strange screaming in the corridors at night. After he rescues a young girl from being brutalised by a female teacher, with the help of social worker Yoo Jin (Jung Yoo Mi) he uncovers the monstrous truth about the sexual abuse going on at the school. Together they begin a long fight for justice, coming up against a system which seems to be specifically designed to protect the guilty.
“Silenced” really is a true horror film, and makes for a tough, gruelling experience. Director Hwang Dong Hyuk doesn’t hold back, and the film never pulls its punches, with some horribly graphic scenes of violence and sexual abuse from early on. Once the confessions start, the film is fairly unrelenting, and it’s impossible to imagine any viewer not being shocked and heartbroken at the ordeals of the children, all the more so thanks to some amazingly brave and convincing performances from its young actors and actresses. The film is very well made, shot by Hwang with a grounded feel and dark, shadowy colours, with some good use of the mist which seems to permanently cloak the town. All of this makes the film depressingly believable, never letting the viewer forget that its tragic events really happened, and though not entirely bleak and showing a few glimmers of resilience and hope, it really is very upsetting throughout. This is of course the point, with Hwang’s purpose clearly being to generate outrage and lay bare the abhorrent abuse, and he achieves this with an admirable lack of manipulation or cheap shock tactics.
The film is equally distressing in its depiction of the Korean justice system and the way in which Ho and Yoo Jin are thwarted at almost every turn, despite having clear evidence of the awful crimes. The film is deeply critical of Korean society, and it’s at times very difficult to believe just how openly efforts are made to cover up the abuse and to protect those involved. Hwang shows corruption at all levels of the educational and legal system, and the film’s second half courtroom drama is tense and gripping without ever getting too preachy or adding in any unnecessary artificial drama.
Although frequently hard to watch, “Silenced” nevertheless comes very highly recommended and stands as not just the most controversial, but one of the best and most hard hitting Korean films of 2011. With its impressive real life achievements testament to its power and to the ability of cinema to be politically charged and worthy, Hwang Dong Hyuk has produced a stunning film which elicits anger, disbelief and horror, and which sticks in the memory long after its poignant conclusion.
Dong Hyeuk Hwang (director) / Jee-young Cong (based upon the novel by), Dong Hyeuk Hwang (screenplay)
CAST: Yoo Gong … Kang In-ho
u-mi Jeong … Seo Yoo-jin
Hyeon-soo Kim … Kim Yeon-doo
Ji-yeong Kim … In-ho’s grandmother
In-seo Jeong … Jin Yoo-ri
Seung-hwan Baek … Jeon Min-soo