Original title: 경성학교: 사라진 소녀들
Warning: despite this being one of the write-ups where I try to write around
various elements of the film, I can’t keep it completely spoiler free.
Korea, 1938, which is to say, right in the middle of the country’s final
phase under Japanese occupation. Because she’s suffering from tuberculosis,
Joo-ran (Park Bo-yeong) – also going by the assimilated Japanese name of Shizuko
– is loaded off by her stepmother at a somewhat curious boarding school that
concerns itself primarily – beside side-lines in pro-Japanese propaganda,
“discipline”, and stitching – with treating its various ill and/or
disenfranchised schoolgirls with injections prepared by the headmistress (Eom
Ji-won). There’s also quite an emphasis on physical education, for the most
formidable of the girls is bound to go to Tokyo to vaguely defined better things
one can’t help but think is a horrible joke on the girls.
Joo-ran is more or less replacing another girl whose Japanese name was also
Shizuko, who one day just left without saying goodbye to anyone. The first
Shizuko’s two best friends have opposite emotional reactions to Joo-ran:
Yeon-deok (Park So-dam) is particularly nice to the emotionally somewhat fragile
girl while Yuka – we never learn her real name – (Kong Ye-ji) is as abusive as
she can get away with. Joo-ran pretty much falls in love with Yeon-deok.
However, things at the boarding school are rather more weird than it first
seems. The original Shizuko was only the first girl to just disappear without
saying goodbye, so something about the place certainly is not quite as it seems,
or rather, even worse than it seems.
What that is, director Lee Hae-yeong’s film leaves open for quite some time,
in its first half capably hinting at everything between the horrors of the time
it takes place in to ghostly activity to an unreliable narrator. The film uses
its time early on for creating the mood of the boarding school, setting up
Joo-ran’s relations to her new school mates, bathing everything in a dreamy
light that can change to the nightmarish at a moment’s notice. Appropriate to
its title, The Silenced is, until an hour or so in, a rather quiet film
which at first suggests nothing too fantastical will be going on in it, until it
very suddenly gets much louder, much pulpier, and a bit cruder than anyone
watching could have expected.
That’s not a bad thing, mind you, for the film works rather hard at preparing
its tonal shift, and once it has come, Lee shows the same capability for setting
an appropriate (which is to say, pleasantly over the top while never over the
budget) tone, until stuff goes down in a way you really didn’t expect at all
thirty minutes into the film. And while the film’s bad guys certainly are
melodramatic pulp villains at their core, the film doesn’t ignore the somewhat
more subtle character work it has done before on the girls, so while the genre
shift it takes is certainly not the most obvious way to go, the main characters
still feel like the same girls they were before. Only now girls who have been
dragged into a rather more painful and excitable world.
Lee’s direction is typical of South Korean genre work: it’s visually slick,
knows how to use that slickness to provide a scene with layers of meaning, is
very good as misdirecting its audience while playing fair, and still finds room
to let the actors do their work. Said actors, or really, actresses, for
like most proper horror films made in the last few decades this is concentrated
on women, do their respective jobs very well indeed in turn, even though these
teenage girls are played by women in their mid-twenties.
So, if you find someone – like not-so-very-past me – doubting that South
Korea is still a great source of technically superior genre films that also know
how to use that technique for more than showing off, you just might want to
point him or her at The Silenced.