Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Silenced (2015)

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.

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