The Silenced (Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul)

Korea (2015) Dir. Lee Hae-Young

If I am to be thankful to cinema for anything, it is making me grateful that I didn’t go to boarding school! Whether it is Lindsay Anderson’s seminal satire if… or this supernatural period thriller from Korea – despite its predominantly female cast – nothing has done more to could sway me from the belief that my home and educational life should be kept completely separate!

Set in 1938 when Korea was still under Japanese occupation and the future Seoul had been renamed Keijō, a sickly girl Joo-ran (Park Bo-yeong) arrives at the Gyeongseong Boarding School for girls as to not burden her family who are moving to Japan. The school, run by an officious principal (Uhm Ji-Won), also doubles as a sanatorium to help cure the sick.

Joo-ran finds it hard to settle in to her new surroundings, nicknamed TB by the other girls because of her ailment, but is quickly befriended by Yeon-Duk (Park So-Dam). Slowly but surely Joo-ran’s health starts to show signs of improvement as does her athletic skills, something tested on a regular basis as the best athletes will earn a trip to Tokyo. But then, girls start to mysteriously disappear in the night.

The literal translation of the original Korean title Gyeongseong School: Disappeared Girls is a little bit of a giveaway as to what happens, although not significant enough to ruin any surprises. The problem, however, is that the script doesn’t build things up enough for any surprises to be effective enough, save for the big twist heading into the final act which smarter viewers may figured out anyway.

Lee Hae-Young is in the director’s chair for a third time, after two comedies including Foxy Festival, but as a screenwriter he has many credits, most notably 2004’s martial arts romp Arahan. This foray into gothic horror by way of a period drama is a bit of a departure and for the most part there is a well-constructed and well-made film here but something is missing.

It’s not that the story is lacking, or rather it is lacking in finesse and details which make all the difference. For example, the film is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, yet this barely features as a major issue. There are small hints, with a lot of the dialogue being in Japanese and the girls having Japanese aliases – Joo-ran is Shizuka, Yeon-Duk is Kazue and a top student/bully is known as Yuka (Kong Ye-Ji).

This plays into the supernatural mystery facet of the plot, in that the girl Joo-ran replaced was also named Shizuka and was apparently very popular, hence the hostility towards Joo-ran. This extends to Yeon-Duk when Yuka and the other girls think she has forgotten about Shizuka so easily, but as we later learn the truth is far more horrifying.

While a nicely creepy atmosphere is created through silence and the austerity of the school building, Lee can’t help but lean too much on past horror glories and throw in the Sadako-esque apparition of the former and soon-to-be former students. It’s an expected cliché and adds an extra element to Joo-ran’s otherwise empty character, but the film didn’t need it, possessing enough chilling elements to be exploited.

Building the characters is another shortcoming of the script. Aside from Joo-ran, one person who needed some fleshing out or at least a background exploration is Shizuka. If we knew what was so special about her then we would understand why the other girls refused to accept Joo-ran. Without this, we are left with a snobby and unforgiving dorm of girls who apparently hate newbies.

Suffering a similar fate is the school principal and the school counsellor (Park Sung-Yeon). From the onset their shiftiness is not hidden, with the latter slapping Joo-ran as soon as her mother leaves the school, while the Principal is a smirking, devious devil in a dress. Instead of telegraphing their obvious pernicious intent, giving the girls some reason to trust and warm to them would have made for a more effective drama.

Naturally I won’t spoil the twist but it is one which both comes a little bit out of leftfield whilst having some tenuous connection to the period of the setting. It does however turn the film into something quite different from the first half, as if the slow moody build up was all for nothing. Granted some tense moments are found here and the violence factor increases but again, it feels like the ending of another film.

The best assessment I can give the script is that Lee tried too hard to swerve us that he went a little overboard with his surprise, leaving many threads either unresolved and insufficiently built up for us to care about them in the first place. With his years of experience as a screenwriter Lee should have spotted these flaws but maybe his strength is having another director give it some form.

Production wise this is a superbly shot film, again a little cookie cutter with the familiar swooping opening shot, the effects are commendable and the period set pieces are beautifully crafted. While the characters may be rather thin the cast do their best to give them life. Park Bo-yeong is quietly mesmerising as Joo-ran whilst Park So-Dam offers similarly committed support as Yeon-Duk.

One thing which is clear is that the period setting must have been more than just a convenient way to facilitate the plot twist – i.e.: a political statement about the Japanese occupation. It didn’t need to be an overt message or even a fiercely scathing one but once can’t shake the feeling Lee might have missed a chance to address this period of Korean history in his own way.

The Silenced is a frustrating film in that there isn’t anything crushingly wrong with it except it is not as effective as it could have been. Perfectly serviceable entertainment for a quick K-horror/gothic drama fix.