Joo-ran (Park Bo-yeong) is a sickly and increasingly weak young girl who is enrolled at a girls' boarding school cum sanitorium to recuperate while her family leaves Korea for Tokyo. Frequently coughing up blood, Joo-ran instantly faces virtual ostracisation from her new classmates - who fear she may be contagious - save for one girl in particular, Yeon-deok (Park So-dam), who without hesitation offers her the hand of friendship. The girls' relationship quickly blossoms and as injections Joo-ran has been receiving begin to improve her health exponentially, she starts to feel that with Yeon-deok by her side she can easily cope with the strict and indeed harsh rules and regulations of the institution.
However, when one of her other classmates disappears without trace after suffering a severe fit, Joo-ran discovers that other girls have also 'vanished' in similar circumstances, on a number of occassions. Increasingly convinced that they are unwillingly part of an altogether darker agenda, Joo-ran and Yeon-deok resolve to uncover what's really taking place at the school and put an end to it, once and for all...
Set in 1938 Japan occupied Korea, The Silenced from the outset sets its sights high, aiming to be a mystery thriller with horror undertones and a period drama complete with political commentary, all rolled into one. Such an effort is indeed worthy but it is inherently fraught with danger - for new and experienced directors alike - to the extent that it could on one hand be seen as brave, on the other perhaps foolhardy.
The Silenced begins as Joo-ran is driven by car to her new home in the sanitorium through utterly beautiful countryside but in spite of the seemingly idyllic surroundings and the initially gentle nature of music accompanying the scene there is present a somewhat darker feeling pervading her approach to the school, underlined not least by Joo-ran's obvious unhappiness at her situation as well as the sombre look on her parents' faces and the utter lack of dialogue or even eye contact between the car's occupants.
Add to that the appearance of the (outwardly) welcoming and accommodating school headmistress (Eom Ji-won) - a woman who seems far less genuine than she would have you believe - and straight away, as far as I'm concerned, classic and very specific Korean cinema horror has clearly been referenced in an almost mirroring of early scenes from Kim Jee-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters.
Similarly, as Joo-ran settles into her new environment and her relationship with Yeon-deok, one almost cannot fail to recognise repeated references to the seminal and perhaps most famous series of classic Korean high school horror movies, the 'Girls School Horror' films (Whispering Corridors, Whispering Stairs etc.), though I am aware that in mentioning them here that's pretty much guaranteed for anyone watching The Silenced after reading this review, whether or not that would otherwise have been the case.
Within this portion of The Silenced - as the mystery unfolds and the strange occurrences at the school begin to take centre stage, director Lee Hae-young deftly contrasts the bright, colourful sunlit beauty of outside scenes with the drab, pallid and indeed often oppressively dark and foreboding interior of the school, adding further to the already creepy feeling that positively oozes from the screen. The horrific events taking place once again point to any number of accomplished horrors - both from Korea and other parts of the world - and whether you treat these fairly overt references as reverential homages to lineage or see them as far less noble, the outcome is the same. In short, the first half of The Silenced easily succeeds in reminding viewers of why they fell in love with Korean horrors and thrillers, in the first place.
However, any 'mystery revealed' horror/thriller is ultimately only as strong as the 'reveal' itself, not only how well it's achieved but also how original, unexpected, unpredictable and believable it is, overall.
Sadly, that is where The Silenced becomes rather a victim of its own early promise and success.
From the early stages of The Silenced, there are clues to the true state of play at the school presented in none too veiled form on several occasions and, as such, figuring out the 'reveal' is a fairly easy task. However, as the ultimate outcome to my mind rather fails to live up to the aforementioned sheer accomplishment of the majority of other aspects present, even though it will likely have occurred to most viewers well in advance, they will easily and summarily have dismissed it in the hope of something more noteworthy and less predictable.
That's not to say that the hidden agenda at the school wouldn't work in any respect, it's just that the deft, worthy lead-up to it here deserves far more.
In fact, I could name more than one US action movie from the 80s and 90s, and even a successful US fantasy/sci-fi TV show, that use the very same premise at their very core to provide wholly entertaining escapism. But, The Silenced is not meant as a 'B' movie and it's certainly not a throwaway television escapade and, as such, its conclusion left me rather disappointed and muttering "You've got to be kidding me", under my breath.
It could even be said that The Silenced speaks of the often vicious, always self-serving Japanese occupation of Korean and of Japan's desire at the time to become an unstoppable world power, but even those ideas are little more than passing and sadly no particularly noteworthy historical commentary is given.
Ultimately, The Silenced moves from being a film worthy of praise on a number of levels to somewhat of a waste of an opportunity.
Park Bo-yeong, Eom Ji-won, Park So-dam, Kong Ye-ji, Sim Hee-seop
Initially accomplished and deftly realised, The Silenced sadly soon becomes a victim of its own early promise. While the mystery at the film's core has worked well enough as a theme in 'B' action movies and sci-fi TV shows, the praiseworthy aspects of The Silenced ultimately deserve a far more original and unpredictable outcome.
'The Silenced' (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들) / 2015 / directed by Lee Hae-young