As Hollywood continues its seemingly never-ending love affair with remakes, reboots, and comic book movies with intricate shared universes, I find myself gravitating more and more to films produced overseas. My ceaseless thirst for original stories ultimately brought me back around to South Korea, a country whose output I spent a lot of time with several years ago. The Korean film industry is still relatively young — 1999’s Shiri marked a major turning point for South Korean cinema — but it’s obvious that these filmmakers have talent to spare, especially when compared to what’s currently happening in Tinseltown. Or maybe I’m just a snob.
Director Hae-young Lee’s The Silenced is a fine example of South Korean cinema getting things right. And while a lot of critics have taken issue with the film’s sudden shift in tone towards the end of the picture, I thoroughly enjoyed the way the story wrapped up. Sure, it’s a little over the top and a stark contrast to the subtle chills exhibited through the rest of the film, but by that point, I was ready for our heroine to turn the tables on her tormentors and unleash a little shift justice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Silenced takes place during the Japanese occupation of South Korea, an extremely difficult and savagely violent period of the country’s storied history. The film tells the admittedly depressing tale Joo-ran (Bo-yeong Park), who finds herself at a special school operated by the Japanese for girls suffering from a wide range of health problems. Joo-ran struggles to make it through the day thanks to her “lung disease,” which prevents her from participating in the school’s peculiar recreational period. The headmistress running the institution seems convinced that their treatments will help the girls get well, and should they show marked signs of improvement, two very lucky students could find themselves heading to Tokyo.
However, things aren’t exactly what they seem. Not only do girls suddenly go missing without explanation, but Joo-ran begins seeing her classmates in various stages of distress. Although she’s convinced that something terrible is taking place at the school, no one seems to believe her. But there’s a silver lining: Joo-ran begins making speedy progress with her treatments, resulting in superhuman powers and a weird numbness to pain. Her friend Yeon-duk (So-dam Park) seems a little freaked out by the shift in Joo-ran’s health. Is there a connection between her newfound friend’s health and the missing girl with whom she shares a name?
Although this may be brutally condescending and more than a little snotty, The Silenced isn’t for moviegoers who are expecting slam-bang action every few minutes. In fact, the movie crawls during the first 45 minutes, which, honestly, was a bit much for this writer at times. Although the movie is just over 90, it still feels like a good 10 minutes could have found its way to the editing room floor before its theatrical release. Granted, this deliberate pacing helps create a tense and moody atmosphere, but there were moments when things moved a little too slowly. When things finally get rolling, however, the film adopts a brisk, breathless pace.
And then there’s the finale, and it’s a doozy. What started as a slow-moving drama with elements of horror and heartfelt drama quickly spirals into something else entirely. And while giving too much away would completely ruin the surprise, some viewers may not enjoy the drastic shift in tone. It’s certainly a little jarring, especially when you’re expecting one thing and you’re handed another. Director Hae-young Lee effectively spins the story on its head, and you’ll either accept it with a smile or curse the last 30 minutes as you hammer out an angry review on social media. It’s polarizing, but sometimes the best endings are controversial.
The Silenced isn’t a flawless experience, but it’s satisfying nonetheless. The performances are strong, the script has a working brain, and Hae-young does a fine job of generating plenty of satisfying moments between the young, charismatic leads. That said, it’s definitely a dreary and moody affair, one that probably won’t appeal to those looking for an uplifting story that moves along at a jaunty speed. If you can handle the wonky pacing and the filmmakers decision to introduce a finale that seems to come completely out of left field, The Silenced should provide South Korean film fanatics with a satisfying albeit bumpy experience.