Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents:
THE SILENCED (2015)
By Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud
When Shizuko (aka Jan-Ran, played by Won-Hee Go) arrives at a Sanitarium School near Seoul, she finds herself lost in a world she is uncomfortable in. The school is a dumping ground for diseased children and orphans, the castoffs of polite society, which offers two lucky students a chance to leave the school for a trip to Tokyo. As this is the 1930s, and Korea is presently under Japanese rule, the hope of going to the capital city of the occupying force for celebrated reasons is intoxicating to the young charges. The spirit of rivalry and competition is sometimes taken to impolite lengths. At first, Shizuko is ostracized, but over time and thanks to both unspecified medications and making a friend with the current champion Kazue (aka Yeon-dok, played by So-dam Park), Shizuko finds herself not only getting healthier but developing strange and almost paranormal talents. This coupled with a string of curious disappearances from the student body, cheerfully explained away as students suddenly returning to their families by the eerily enthusiastic headmistress (Ji-won Uhm), presents the clues to an eerie mystery in director Hae-young Lee’s mysterious and haunting film. Can Shizuko unravel the mystery enough to speak out, or will she be numbered among THE SILENCED (2015)? (Directed by Lee Hye-yeong)
At first brush, THE SILENCED is another lavish historical Korean gothic in the vein of writer/director Park Chan-Wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN (2016). Like that film, this production is set during the height of the Japanese occupation. For those versed in languages, the spoken dialogue is mostly Japanese with little threads of Korean woven in like secrets shared between teenaged best friends. Like THE HANDMAIDEN, we see some stunning visuals and a nice moody use of camera and lighting. For example, the opening overhead shot of a period car traversing a lonesome wooded countryside before finally arriving at a sprawling mansion house might well be taking place only a few miles from the weird Japanese/English manor from Park Chan-Wook’s movie.
Do you have any opening thoughts, Trista?
Like THE HANDMAIDEN, the Imperial Japanese are the villains of the piece. Interestingly enough, in THE SILENCED we don’t really see any Japanese nationals as characters, with the possible exception of the housework teacher (Ryun Jo). Yet the Korean adults all fall in line, trying to appeal to their Japanese conquerors to get ahead, erasing basic Korean-ness with new Japanese names for everyone and insisting on spoken Japanese in conversation. It’s a bizarre “more Japanese than thou” competition on a deadly scale.
To viscerally get how weird this is, imagine these characters as Americans (perhaps Texans?) all speaking German, heiling Hitler, and talking about Berlin as the promised land. They’re all competing to see who can be the best Nazi. This must be creepy as all get out to native Koreans viewing the movie, and just adds to the “wrongness” of the school and a sense of creeping dread.
THE SILENCED is a film with firm roots not only in the gothic and the strange but also YA novels/films. Mysterious disappearances, dreadful secrets, and sinister authority figures with ulterior motives abound. The headmistress has her games, as do her assistant and the oddly leering military officer who visits the school. While the eerie pieces draw the characters and audience into the mystery, there is also plenty of time given to budding friendships and the classic “coming of age” narrative. Shizuko and the other students are caught in a web they cannot fathom, and kept infighting to prevent them trying to understand their circumstances.
The girls are trained to speak supplicating Japanese whenever possible, and Shizuko is isolated further for not knowing the proper calls and responses. They even compete to show who can embroider the best sakura (cherry blossoms, Japan’s national flower), and are told that their physicality and their bodies are their most valuable contributions to the cause.
To underline coming of age, we see girls covered in blood before they vanish from the school. This implies both foul play and a perverted menstruation metaphor. It’s twisted and chilling.
THE SILENCED has a slow pace, which is surprising given a running time of less than two hours. While the dread and tension do not take center stage until the film’s latter half, there are several eerie up front bits to show the darkness festering beneath the placid exterior. The first half of the movie is spent setting up the characters and the scenario, the latter half delves into the what the hell is going on and finally allows the pressure cooker to explode.
Though I initially found myself comparing the piece to Park Chan-Wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN, in fact this film sits more comfortably as a companion piece to both Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980) and another Stephen King work, FIRESTARTER (adapted by Stanley Mann in 1984), as well as John Farris’s THE FURY (adapted by Brian DePalma in 1978).
This is not to say the plot is a direct copy of any of those works. It definitely builds on ideas and cinematic techniques found in those novels and film adaptations, though.
From a plot perspective, THE SILENCED envisions what a young girl would do and feel as she finds herself possessed of unearthly abilities while trapped in a compound that appears to be one mundane locale that is actually something completely different. In FIRESTARTER, Charlie McGee found herself trapped on a remote ranch that turned out to be a compound associated with that shady government organization called The Shop. Here, Shizuko is being held at an isolated Sanitarium School that is likewise being used for sinister purposes.
From Kubrick’s adaptation, the steady cam work and gorgeous widescreen shots find new life in this location, but instead of drowning the viewer in a blizzard’s whites and grays, THE SILENCED saturates the eye with either dark stained-wood interiors or natural green exteriors. The occasional reds and blues are abnormally rich, popping in the frame.
The dark wood, gray walls, and hospital whites really bring out the gore, don’t they?
The friendship between Kazue and Shizuko anchors us in the movie, and gives us someone to cheer for. Without that ready source of empathy and exploration of character, it would have been all too easy to detach from the characters completely. I was cheering for their escape even as I dreaded the futility of it.
Besides, the friendship between these two and their explorations beyond the walls of their school gives us a great homage to Guillermo Del Toro’s THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001), where an unplanned swim in a wilderness pond reveals chilling truths about the Sanatorium. Sadly, there were no gothic Del Toro ghosts on offer, though I suspect they could have added a triumphant flourish to this macabre tale.
So true! There are hints of ghosts at the beginning, but the film teases us with rumors and teenager speculations. Though a paranormal/supernatural phenomenon is influencing some of the students, they are all a part of the mystery. This is not a Scooby Doo story where unnatural phenomena are ultimately explained away, as in THE PHANTOM OF THE THEATER (2016). In THE SILENCED, the ultimate answers are surreal, dressed in a sort of super science one might find in MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994).
To add to the creepiness, the best thing this movie’s characters can hope for is to go to Tokyo. Nevermind that a class trip to Seoul should be easy to arrange if the school is indeed near there. Clearly there’s nothing in Seoul as exciting as the conquerors’ capital. Those two girls who are the best— though why track and field is the benchmark remains an ominous mystery—will be rewarded with Tokyo.
When her loyalties are challenged later in the movie, the Headmistress admits to doing what she does in the name of ambition—even she wants to go to Tokyo triumphant and be accepted there. To do what, who knows? Just “going to Tokyo” begins to sound terribly sinister.
What did you think, Daniel?
Yeah, that “going to Tokyo” sounded like a euphemism for getting an icepick lobotomy or a Mozambique triple tap (two to the chest, one to the head).
The end of the film covers a lot of ground very quickly. There are some breathtaking action scenes and a truly harrowing murder setup. I was struck by how easily some of these set pieces and shots could have found homes in the current superhero-flick craze: camera angles that could be used for the next AVENGERS movies; bad-ass scenes of soldiers facing off against terrible powers that are better than anything in the X-MEN franchise. Add to this people flying around on wires, collateral damage when bodies are tossed into the set decorations, and there’s even a deathtrap right out of Adam West-era BATMAN (1966), and you have a jigsaw puzzle of scenes from a dozen Marvel properties.
However, THE SILENCED does not play nice and allow its characters to walk out of such scenes unscathed. It shows the harrowing effects of violence, and the ending it slouches toward like a relentless train is one where not all the “good” characters emerge victorious or even happy.
I also liked the hand wavy science that got revealed around and through the final act. It had the feel of filmmakers with a lot of ideas, who were not afraid to present them all. There is an orderliness to things, but stepping back and looking at all the ground this movie covers, I was left amazed that it all worked as well as it did. I’d say this is due to the characters. I really got attached to our shy protagonist and her outgoing bff.
I found myself wondering if the implied eugenics experiments were to generate soldiers for the Japanese or to simply breed super-Japanese soldiers for the next generation of warfare. Else why try these drug regimens on preteen girls? It’s possible that even the Headmistress doesn’t know the endgame involving the girls under her charge. I did find myself wondering if I had missed something critical after the movie ended. I’m still not sure.
Since the next generation of Japanese warfare from this 1930s could mean World War II, I’d say there are abundant ideas for an interesting sequel. Japanese soldiers possessed of terrifying paranormal “science” powers versus the world! And only a team of misfit teenage girls can stop them. Forget PACIFIC RIM 2. Give me some of that!
All told, I would say THE SILENCED is an interesting stew of ideas, worth sampling.
© Copyright 2017 by Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud