Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The True Horror of Silence

 This movie -- Silenced (Do-ga-ni/; Korean, 2010) -- is really something else. The one current imdb review gives it high praise and pretty much parallels my take on it. It opened last week at a very limited amount of cinemas, is UNRATED for very good reason, and is a major dose of heart-wrenching bleakness. That it is based on a true story that ended tragically makes watching it almost unbearable.

The story involves a school for the deaf where very young students (pre-teen boys and girls) are being beaten, raped, and intimidated by senior faculty members and their immediate family members.  If it weren't true, it would sound outrageously improbable. In his LA Times review last Friday, critic Kenneth Turan attacked the film for sensationalizing the sexual crimes. I disagree that the graphic depictions of child abuse are included for the sake of sensationalism. They are included because they need to be. We need to see and feel what these children went through in order to fully comprehend how barbarically they were treated by their carers at the school and by the corrupt Korean court system. Not surprisingly, "important" and influential men were protected by the court as their victims were denied justice.

 At the center of the film is a young male teacher (Gong Yoo) who suspects the children are being abused almost immediately after beginning employment there. When he witnesses a shockingly brutal beating of a young male student by a colleague, his desire to intervene is natural and strong, but he encounters opposition driven by different agendas from the school's principal and his own mother. It's a human rights worker who provides him the courage to fight a very broken system.

The first half of Silenced (the literal Korean title is Crucible) involves the teacher's discovery of the school's dirty secrets.  The second half focuses on a court case in which the children take the witness stand in front of their abusers. Some crimes are recreated. All recreations are beyond what you'd see in an American or British film, although works such as Tim Roth's The War Zone and Angelica Huston's Bastard Out of Carolina carry some of the same dramatic weight.

 Silenced is obligatory viewing for many reasons, but the primary one is its courage. When Kenneth Turan criticizes the film for its "sensationalism", he's taking an easy swing at it. How should the film's horrors be conveyed, Kenneth? Should they be less shocking? More palatable to you as a viewer? Suitable for the average American viewer? Sanitized enough for a PG rating?

Fuck that! I can't help but reflect on stories we hear often about politicians who give their support to controversial laws -- stem cell research, for example -- after the life of a family member is saved. These changes of heart sicken me because they are the disgraceful folly of men with narrow, insular visions who are unable to empathize with the struggles of people (voters!) outside their immediate circles. Only when these idiots come face to face with the real possibility of loss do they do what they should have done long ago. The recreations of ugly, intimidating sex crimes against children do need to be graphic because graphic hits home. But it's not the sex that bruises the viewer of Silenced -- it's the violent intimidation that accompanies it. We see, in a way never conveyed so bluntly and brilliantly before, that the most heinous aspect of rape (of children and adults) is the intimidation of the victim by the cowardly rapist. The physical aspect of the rape ends, but the intimidation is maintained by the rapist, his family, the general public, and the courts. It's an endless nightmare.

 Aspects of Silenced reminded me of Dr. Lamb because, from a photographic point of view, the recreations are rich and moody. The film's grim tone echoes Blood and Bone, The War Zone, and Run and Kill. It's not a horror film in any traditional genre sense (there are no Freddy Krugers here), but it certainly explores horrific material, material more deeply disturbing than the recent Serbian Movie because the intimidation scenes accompanying the sexual abuse make the drama real.

Highly recommended for those not irritated by the sticky grit of truth.


  1. Kenneth Turan seems to be treading lightly on a rather serious subject. I haven't read his review, but the irony here is that with his - what I assume is - moralizing of this film's depictions of sexual abuse he is actually not treating the subject with the honesty that it demands. Really, what isn't sensational about a "shockingly brutal beating" of a child? Is it possible to overplay the emotions that such a scenario can elicit in a modern human? Maybe it would be sensational to ancient Latin America cultures that raised children for the purpose of ritual sacrifice, but we've come a long way since then. Imagine if Turan had found video footage of a real life sexual or violent assault. Would he claim that the antagonist should have held back on the aggression AS he or she were conducting the assault? Sometimes film criticism reeks of pure politicized nonsense. Thanks for the review!

  2. Just wanted to say thanks Phantom for bringing this film to my attention. This is why I love your blog so much. I finally had the chance to see it and I'm still trying to recover. Devastating is the only way I know to describe it. And what brave performances from those kids----Jason

  3. Unknown -- thanks for letting me know you saw it and were affected by it. I don't know anybody else who's seen it. Did you see it on DVD or at a theater? Luckily, I saw it at a theater where it played (in LA) for one week only, but I'll snap up the DVD or BluRay, too. In addition to some mainstream coverage, I do try to highlight stuff that may get missed. Feel free to let me know stuff I've missed, too, Unknown. Thanks!

  4. Jesse W. -- very valid argument. Thank you.