It is incredibly rare for a film to have such potency that the national fervor generated changes law. Silenced (The Crucible) (도가니), based on the true story of the sexual abuses of hearing impaired children in 2000, sparked outrage upon release not only for the subject matter but also for the extremely lenient punishments dealt to the offenders, as well as the corruption seemingly inherent within the judiciary system.
While critics bemoaned the public furor as hypocrisy, due to the indifference displayed to the television programme and book produced years prior on the subject, politicians were keen to introduce legislation which was shockingly absent to protect children from sexual predators – and raise their own political profile in the process.
As such, Silenced is an incredibly powerful film conveying an array of social discourses. Helmed by highly competent director Hwang Dong-hyeok (황동혁), Silenced is a tense and gripping drama during the discovery of the abuses and impending trial, yet loses momentum in the inevitable court hearing.
Art teacher and sign language practitioner Kang In-ho (Gong Yoo (공유) endures several hardships in life. His wife has died; his daughter is very sick; and finding employment is extremely difficult. Through the recommendation of his professor, In-ho is accepted as a teacher at Inhwa school for the hearing impaired in Gwangju. Yet upon arrival in the foggy village, he is involved in a car accident with social worker Seo Yoo-jin (Jeong Yu-mi (정유미), exchanging insurance details. Settling in at the school, In-ho finds the behaviour of the students strange; they are quiet and nervous, often sporting bruises and cuts, and are reluctant to communicate. Worse still, he hears screams at night and witnesses the beatings and water torture used against the students. Learning of the sexual abuses In-ho casts aside his career and gathers the abused children, working together with Yoo-jin to launch a legal campaign against the injustice caused by the perpetrators – including the headmaster.
Due to the subject nature of the film, Silenced cannot help but be an incredibly emotive viewing experience. Director Hwang Dong-hyeok deserves credit for employing a variety of methods in conveying the horror of child abuse, from the cries of deaf children echoing in darkened corridors, long takes of appalling physical violence, to Kubrickian-esque shots of stairwells that descend into horror. The use of sign language is also well utilised as the children are forced to reenact events rather than speak of them, adding a chilling dimension to the abuse. Hwang Dong-hyeok is keenly aware of the necessity to shock, and his decision to depict controversial scenes including a teacher washing young boys in a bath and the headmaster undressing himself and young girls against their will, add a level of repulsion that is difficult to describe. While certain critics have questioned the extent to which such scenes should exist, there is no denying the shocking reconstruction of events forces audiences from apathy and indifference. The suspense and tension are wonderfully created within the school, almost making the building a sinister character in itself.
Yet Silenced tends to stall outside of the environment, with the impending court case and the hearing itself competent but relatively low-key. This generally due to focusing on protagonists other than the children, and in doing so the narrative loses traction and immediacy. However such tangents do allow for additional social commentary, focusing on the corruption of virtually every professional involved in the case as a microcosm for the Korean justice system. Christians are also held accountable within the film for vehemently supporting the child abusers and bribing officials, as well as spitting at and intimidating those pressing charges. Silenced reasserts itself when focusing on the testimonies of the children, who bravely give evidence against the perpetrators despite the pressure against them. In doing so the film finds its emotional core, making the final decision bestowed by the presiding judge all the more heartfelt.
As the heart and soul of Silenced, child actors Kim Hyeon-soo (김현수), Jeong In-seo (정인서) and Baek Seung-hwan (백승환) as protagonists Kim Yeon-doo (김연두), Jin Yoo-ri (진유리) and Jeon Min-soo (전민수) respectively, are exceptional. Their performances are incredibly powerful and compelling, all three utterly convincing as victims of abuse desperate for justice and affection. Kim Hyeon-soo is wonderful as Yeon-doo, particularly during the court room scenes as she describes her abuse and outsmarts the adults in the room. Jeong In-seo is also compelling as Yoo-ri, the youngest victim, ably shifting between acute nervousness when describing the assaults and moments of sheer joy when shown affection. As the only male victim, Baek Seung-hwan is shockingly convincing as Min-soo, displaying an intensity in his performance that belies his age. Whether suffering various abuses, recapturing his childhood or breaking down through stress, Baek Seung-hwan conveys gripping poignacy and emotional distress.
The same cannot be applied to lead actor Gong Yoo as teacher In-ho. His performance is generally bland and stoic even in the face of horrific scenes of violence, more of a phantom than a troubled man confronted with child abuse. In fairness to the actor, the character is rather underdeveloped with select few scenes informing his history or relationships, resulting in a lack of empathy. The few occasions in which In-ho’s character is conveyed is usually through beratement by his mother, more of an annoyance than informative. Absence of development is also applicable to social worker Yoo-jin, played by Jeong Yu-mi. Initially quite unlikeable, Yoo-jin becomes much more compelling than her male counterpart due to the range of emotions conveyed through Jeong Yu-mi’s performance. As devices through which the abused children seek justice the central roles of In-ho and Yoo-jin require substantiality as they function as the conduits for the audience. Yet as it stands, they fall rather flat.
Silenced is an incredibly powerful film that expresses the horrors of child abuse and conveys the corruption of members of Korean society with skill. The resulting public outrage is wholly understandable as the stark brutality of the events are performed with exceptional child actors and the injustice against such innocence is impossible to remain detached from. While the film loses momentum and its emotional core when outside the school and away from the victims, Silenced is a challenging film and – even if merely to have an opinion – required viewing.