Banana Reviews: Silenced (Korea 2011)

Last year, Philbert Lui was the guest blog critic for several of our 2011 selections. Philbert also happens to be an emerging filmmaker AND a member of the Reel Asian Marketing Committee AND the founder of BananaTimes. If you don’t know Philbert yet, then you better get to know :)

For the coming months, Philbert and his team at BananaTimes will be reviewing new Asian films releases and we will be sharing these with you here. First up – SILENCED by Director Kwang Dong Hyuk:

Movie reviews are generally among my easiest articles to write but this has definitely been one of the most difficult. Why? Because Silenced was both a fabulously well-made movie and one of the most powerful and disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. I almost feel guilty saying good things about it because it’s about such a horrible topic. And now that I’ve peaked your interest, how about I give you a little background information about the story behind Silenced.

Silenced is a South Korean movie, released in 2011, based on a novel from 2009 about a true story of abuse at a school for hearing-impaired children in Gwangju, South Korea. In the movie, a young widower, Kang In Ho – played by Gong Yoo – gets a job as a teacher at a school for hearing-impaired children. On his way there he gets into a minor car accident and at the repair shop he runs into a young human rights lawyer, Yoo Jin – played by Jung Yu Mi – when she runs into his car in the parking lot causing further damage.

When he arrives at the school for his first day at work, the school principal and director of administration (who are twins) ask for a bribe of 50,000,000won (about $50,000CDN) to keep his job. In Ho, who really needs the job and can’t afford to pay the bribe, asks his mother for help raising the money. His mother, who lives with his young daughter who has severe asthma, finds the money by taking a mortgage on their home.

As In Ho starts teaching, he notices the withdrawn behaviour of the students and corporal punishment that is extreme. He also starts to wonder about strange noises and disappearances, and finally after seeing one of his students on a window ledge – looking like she’s about to commit suicide – he starts to take action. After saving a male student from a brutal beating and taking him to the hospital, he calls Yoo Jin and starts the process of bringing all the abuse into the light so the students can get help. And to complicate matters, he has to battle his conscience about doing the right thing (helping his students) against paying his debts and his daughter’s poor health.

I went into the movie knowing that it was based on a true story about child abuse and I was prepared for it to be hard to watch. Or rather I thought I was. Silenced was the most difficult movie I have ever watched, bar none! The subject matter is absolutely horrible but it’s also extremely well scripted, filmed and acted – especially by the child actors. I cry easily at movies, but never like I did while watching Silenced. I started crying at about the five minute mark and really didn’t stop until a few minutes after the movie finished. Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional impact of watching a small boy – about 5 or 6 years old – walk in front of a train to commit suicide. And this happens in the first five minutes of the movie. As the story unfolds, and more horror – real horror, not fake movie horror – becomes apparent, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre. We see great examples of humanity in some of the characters, depravity in others and how strong children can be.

I won’t lie to you; it isn’t a movie for everyone. The subject matter is sensitive and challenging to watch but it is a very powerful movie. It is also one that is extremely well made and I think, important to watch from a social commentary perspective – and not just about South Korea. Just be prepared to cry or at the very least get emotional and angry, but watch it!

Reviewed by Cindy Zimmer. Check out Cindy’s blog post about her experience at last year’s Reel Asian here.