Thursday, October 13, 2016
THE SILENCED (2015)
Lee Hae-young's picture belongs to a subgenre popularized if not invented by Guillermo del Toro: the fascist gothic. The year is 1938 and the setting is Japanese-occupied Korea. Cha Ju-Ran (Park Bo-yong) is the tubercular daughter of a privileged family that has dumped her in a boarding school while they go to Japan, which is apparently where all ambitious Koreans want to go. Like all the students -- like all Koreans, I assume -- Ju-Ran is given a Japanese name, Shizuko, which makes things awkward with her new classmates, on top of all the travails of the new girl, because there had just been a Shizuko there who went away abruptly. There's a heavy emphasis on athletics at the school, because the two top athletes will go to Japan. Those who know history might think this has something to do with the 1940 Olympics that were supposed to take place in Tokyo, as Koreans would compete under the Japanese flag as they had in previous Games. But there's something more to it than that, and that something moves the film away from its gothic trappings and toward the realm of Marvel Comics movies.
In a twist strongly reminiscent of origin stories told about the Black Widow, it turns out that the school is trying to create super-soldiers, the gimme being that teenage girls are the ideal test subjects for the wonder drugs that will do the job. The effects on Ju-Ran are miraculous. On her first day of track and field she can't even make it to the end of the long jump track without succumbing to a coughing fit. After some treatments she proves a prize pupil, leaping far past the pit. But she doesn't like what's happening to her and her schoolmates, or what the treatments are making her do to others. When she and her one real friend try to escape, and the friend comes to a bad end, she likes it even less. That sets up the inevitable reckoning with the headmistress and the Japanese soldiers behind her.
Overall, The Silenced -- the generic English title hardly approximates the original "Gyeongseong School: The Lost Girls" -- manages the balancing act of mixing gothic horror and comic-book sci-fi by maintaining an overall mood of mystery and dread that should carry the viewer through the presumably preposterous moments. Inevitably the story must resonate more with Korean audiences still conscious of the history of Japanese rule, while the contempt some characters express for Korea must have made those audiences almost as queasy as the more violent moments. It's an allegory for both the nation's exploitation by the colonial occupier and the latent power that would make South Korea a global economic competitor later in the 20th century. For the rest of us its a modest hybrid picture that manages somehow to transcend its derivative nature through an earnest lead performance and an indispensable willingness to take itself seriously as if all its ideas were new.