The Silenced (2015) Korean Movie review
Korean popular culture experienced a renaissance starting in about the mid-90s. This renaissance first started in music but quickly spread over to movies, TV dramas, and etc. If I look back, it is not surprising the phenomenon happened at that moment in time. Not only did the long-ruling military government silently fade away into history but the Korean economy was riding high for about a decade prior to that moment. Thus, it was the time for a cultural blossoming to happen like never before.
However, you cannot have a renaissance come out of anywhere. In the case of the Korean pop cultural renaissance, it fed off the nourishment of the 70s and early 80s American popular culture and of Japanese culture which was the leader of modern pop culture in the region. I would actually say the Korean pop cultural renaissance liberally copied off from Japanese culture. Others may use the term “stole”. In fact, compared to these sources, traditional Korean culture had far less to do with the renaissance.
It was more like a pinch or two.
You know … for flavour!
The resulting cultural output of the renaissance was and is not particularly deep but it did not really need to be deep. As the first wave of its kind to happen in Korea, it just needed to give an outlet for the creative energies of those in Korea and create a platform for future waves. And it succeeded!
I mean it is the reason you are here reading this article now.
About 2 decades separated from its birth, we are currently living in the aftermath of that first wave Korean pop cultural renaissance. It had a good 15 year or so run. And now, we are left to wander the desolate dried-out lakebed which was once filled with the waters of the renaissance. You see this in many areas but it is more evident with Korean movies at the moment.
So, now Korean movies are rummaging through its old bag of tricks to find a new direction, a new well of inspiration. Some try to recreate the 70s and 80s Hollywood movies. Some focus on nostalgia. Some see Korean traditional culture as an untapped source of inspiration. Others… dip back into the well of getting “inspired” by Japanese pop culture.
All interesting attempts!
“The Silenced / 경성학교: 사라진 소녀들” (2015) basically does all of these at the same time… although primarily focused on copying off Japanese pop culture.
The title of “The Silenced “(2015) is a rather generic English movie title that has almost no descriptive properties. The Korean title is “경성학교: 사라진 소녀들” which, roughly translated, is “Kyungsung School: The Missing girls.”
While not really creative, it is at least more descriptive!
The movie starts with a now very “textbook” aerial tracking shot of an old fashion car driving down a long winding road in the midst of a thick forest. The car is carrying a mysterious girl with a mysterious disease to a mysterious school for girls located in a mysterious place in the middle mysterious nowhere.
You should get used to the concept of “mysterious” when watching this movie!
Really get used to it!
Once at the boarding school, the girl is dropped off and she has to try to find friends, to deal with the teachers, and be a protagonist in a “Gothic” movie. And weird stuff happens!
Do you see where the movie is going?
The Silenced (2015) spans over 3 different subgenres of the “Gothic” movie genre. More accurately, I mean the Japanese “Gothic” movie genre.
What is the difference?
I do not want to get into this difference as this review is already getting long and I have not even gotten into the meat of the review. Just know that the Japanese pioneered the “Gothic” movie genre in these parts of the globe.
The Silenced (2015) is primarily a Japanese “prepubescent lesbian boarding school romance” gothic movie with a decent dose of Japanese Gothic Horror and Japanese Gothic science fiction set in around the late 1920s or early 30s.
While this mixing of Gothic movie sub-genres could be very interesting, it could also get messy. And sadly “The Silenced” (2015) is more of the latter.
Writing can get messy!
“The Silenced” (2015), in its present form, was never going to be a great movie as there is too much of a niche genre vibe to it. It could have been an interesting B- genre cult movie though. I mean it is not without interesting elements. However, the movie lacks a firm grasp on any kind of emotional core.
What do I mean?
Considering that the biggest portion of the movie surrounds a lesbian boarding school romance, the emotional core could be the emerging female sexuality and the resulting isolation or something like that. While “The Silenced” (2015) does display hints of these and other elements, it never commits to any of them.
This is a serious problem, especially for a gothic movie.
However, it is pretty common for a Korean movie to be toothless.
This is not helped by the movie spreading itself over 3 gothic subgenres. The movie starts out as a subtle gothic love story between prepubescent girls at a boarding school.
Since it is not fully developed, it is more like a strong inter-dependence but you get the idea.
During the 2nd act, there are some Japanese Gothic Horror scenes introduced. In the final act, the movie veers over to Japanese Gothic science fiction and things get very crazy.
But not F***ing crazy enough to be interesting in itself.
However, at its core, the movie is a gothic lesbian girl romance. While this is all fine and good, this does cause problems. For one, the lesbian girl romance doesn’t really work which I mentioned already. The other problem is that this underdeveloped romance ends up using too much of the screen time to really support the Gothic science fiction 3rd act. Even the horror elements of the movie end up being more of a distraction than adding to the final act of the movie.
An example of this is how the movie uses its villains. They get barely any screen time before the 3rd act when things go off the rails and the villains are thrust to the forefront chew up the scenery as they go. So, all the “crazy” in the 3rd act ends up feeling as if they were coming out of nowhere. In addition, the protagonist does not really have a relationship with the villains going into the 3rd act. So, the final confrontation and the villains’ motivations end up feeling rather hollow.
While these problems are serious, the movie could have still been a decent enough genre cult movie even with its problems. What prevents it from reaching “flawed but interesting” status is the fact that the director seems to confuse being mysterious with not being detailed.
The Difficulties of being Gothic!
In many ways, the Gothic movie genre, whether it is standard or Japanese, requires more of the director than you would think. It is a genre of “saying” much without actually saying much!
You have to create a self-contained world where the “crazy” is plausible without the heavy dependence on dialogue to provide exposition like other genres such as science fiction.
If we just explained everything, it would not be a Gothic movie!
Mystery and mood are key!
This means that what one can do just on the pages of a script is limited. A huge portion of the information the audience require needs to be delivered in other ways. It is the tone of the movie. It is the cinematography. It is editing. It is the production design. It is sound designs. The director of a gothic movie needs to able to handle all of this in a cohesive manner. In the case of “The Silenced” (2015), it is evident that the director/writer, Lee Hae-Yeong, was not up to the task.
Mysterious… the Problem!
The striking fact about the movie is that I knew so few details regarding the movie while and even after watching the movie. And I do not mean in regards to the plot since I could basically guess almost every plot turn about 20 minutes in.
The plot is rather cliché if you know the Japanese gothic genre.
Even if you are familiar with the only standard gothic genre, you will get where the movie is going.
I am talking about the details of the characters and the world of the movie. The female protagonist is basically a total mystery as a character and not in a good way. The movie gives very few details about her backstory and motivations. In addition, her personality shifts according to the convenience of the plot.
This is the same for the other supporting girl characters attending the same boarding school as the protagonist. While supporting characters do not need to have detailed personalities, they at least need defining traits as a character. The director of this movie does a very poor job at establishing who these characters are. In fact, I did not even recall what they look like at any time during the movie. Thus, I was left thinking “who is that character?” Why is she behaving so awkwardly and abruptly?
Other than the protagonist who basically looks like an anime character, none of the other supporting girl characters is visually memorable. And they needed to be visually recognizable since they had utterly no personality. If you think about it, it is funny that Korean drama or movie actors and actresses look more like anime characters than even their Japanese counterparts.
The lack of information is also reflected in the world built up in this movie. The setting of the movie is a boarding house for girls. However, it is never clear how many girls are in school. From what we see, there are only about a dozen girls there.
Is that right?
In addition, the school feels like a boarding school for wealthy young girls. But most of the girls seemed to be poor since everyone is obsessed with winning an athletic scholarship to go to Tokyo, Japan.
Want to go to the Island anyone?
And what kind of school is this? The school does not seem to teach anything other than the long jump during gym class and needlepoint the rest of the time. In fact, there only seemed to be a total of 3 adults in the whole school who we barely see anyway. Most of the time, the girls seemed to be left to their own devices even though the movie tries to portray the school as being strict.
Is that right?
Visual Style Needed!
Tim Burton, as a director, is the poster child of modern gothic movies for better or worse. His movies over the past few years are huge messes but at least were visually “interesting.” I say this somewhat ironically. His visuals tell its own story which is frequently far better than the actual story of his movies. At least, the world he creates is alive in its own weird manner.
With “The Silenced” (2015), there are so few basic details about the world and the characters. As a result, the audience just doesn’t care about what happens to the protagonist when the movie turns into a gothic sci-fi movie.
I would not say that the director is incompetent or even untalented but at this point, he is just mediocre as he fails to come up with a cohesive visual style for the movie. There are some attempts to toss in some interesting visual elements such as the red flower motif that is everywhere but does not really pay off.
Get the image behind the red flowers or “bleeding” flowers?
Remember I said that this movie was more or less a “prepubescent lesbian boarding school romance” gothic movie.
I do appreciate this movie’s attempts to be stylistically creative but they are not good enough to compensate for the messy storytelling. If you think about it, even Tim Burton cannot do that. But to give “The Silenced” (2015) some credit, Tim Burton’s movies are far more of a mess than “The Silenced” (2015).
The Interesting Stuff
The thing that is really a shame about “The Silenced” (2015) is that it is not totally incompetent. There are interesting elements in this movie. The “prepubescent lesbian romance” angle is interesting even though it is dealt only at a very surface level.
You do not see this by which I mean both lesbian love stories and lesbian girls in Korean movies. It is easier to find gay elements than lesbian ones in Korean movies which is actually the opposite case in Hollywood.
It is weird!
The setting of “Korea somewhere around the late 20s” is rather fascinating also. It is now a cliché to say that the Japanese of this period were bad in a similar manner as movies showing WW2 Nazis are bad. Thus, many Korean movies just confront the Japanese occupation of Korea head-on as something that is unnatural and a thing that should be changed right now.
This is not how “The Silenced” (2015) treats the situation. Rather than going directly against the situation, the movie shows a certain level of acceptance of the situation while still expressing the fact that the Japanese are evil.
I mean they end up being the ultimate villains of the movie.
This is not a spoiler!
If you have Nazis in your movie, would you expect anything different?
Like people who have lived their whole lives under the occupation, the characters in the movie seem to just take the situations as the status quo. This more subtle view of Japanese-Korean colonialism is silently weaved into the story by using story elements such as the “scholarship to Tokyo” everyone wants in order to solve all their undescriptive problems.
Another element in this vein is the use of both Japanese and Korean languages for the movie’s dialogue. In this movie, Japanese is used in situations by the characters to express order, oppression, and eventually the “crazy”. In contrast, Korean is used in the situation of personal interactions. This is also applied to when characters use their Korean names and when they use their Japanese ones.
At The End
Ultimately, “The Silenced / 경성학교: 사라진 소녀들” (2015) is a movie of missed opportunities. It is a movie that could have been much better if it had a much more experienced director to handle the material.
The writer /director Lee Hae-Yeong has been writing screenplays for a while and had directed two of them prior to this movie. Both were small comedies. So, not only was “The Silenced” (2015) his big break as a movie director but it was also a departure from his prior work. This inexperience really shows!
Leaving aside the fact that the screenplay needs a lot of work, the director cannot muster enough detail in the movie which is vital for a Gothic movie to make the story resonate with the audience. As a side note, no one is getting any acting awards with this movie. The young girl actors are barely at the level of adequate while the few adult actors are just letting go and chewing scenery.
“The Silenced / 경성학교: 사라진 소녀들” (2015) can be placed firmly in the middle of the “has serious problems but also has enough interesting elements to make it worth watching at least once” range. Thus, I am going to give this movie a C grade.
Score: C or 4.5/10