Voice Of Silence (Sorido Eopsi)

Korea (2020) Dir. Hong Ui-Jung

One of the things I don’t miss about employment is being told what to do and having to do it. Some people are in jobs where they have little say in the decisions made and obey whatever order is given to them. If you work for a dangerous criminal gang then asking questions and saying no isn’t an option.

Egg farmers Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung) and his partner Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) have a unusual side job – they clean up the mess for a criminal gang, literally. They dispose of the bodies after a punishment session and make sure the room is spotless afterwards. Since Chang-bok has a lame leg and Tae-in is a mute, both are lucky to have this extra income, therefore avoid asking questions of their ruthless boss.

When he instructs the boys to look after them for a couple of days, they are surprised to find it is an 11 year-old girl Cho-Hee (Moon Seung-Ah) he is holding hostage but her father tried to negotiate a lower ransom. Appalled by this, Chang-bok goes to query this only to find his boss had been killed by his gang leader, leaving Chang-bok and Tae-in to figure out what to do next.

Debutant director Hong Ui-Jung’s Voice Of Silence is a tale of Stockholm Syndrome with a difference, using it to deliver a commentary on class inequality and the fragile lines of morality in the name of survival. Hong also posits the popular idea that family doesn’t have to comprise solely of blood relations, looking at the reliance and responsibility of that bond which brings people together.

Another unique aspect is Hong being female – not that we should be in the habit of implying male/female voices in cinema, but gritty crime thrillers are typically a male province. Having said that, maybe a man might not have brought the same level of sensitivity to this story as a female perspective can, especially with two young females playing key roles in it.

Before we get to them, we need to look at Chang-bok and Tae-in. They aren’t really bad people – the older man is driven by his faith, saying a prayer for the deceased before burying them. Chang-bok doesn’t seem to see any conflict between his beliefs and his clean up job, rationalising it that as long as they do a good job and don’t ask questions, they are not complicit in the real criminal activities.

From her stunned reaction at her new accommodation at Tae-in’s place, Cho-Hee is not used to living in such squalid conditions, her bright white blouse being the cleanest thing in it. Among the discarded clothes, boxes, and other items is a mass of unruly black hair belonging to Tae-in’s younger sister Moon-Joo (Lee Ga-eun). Sister may be a poetic term in this case, no mention of any parents, but Moon-Joo seems content with Tae-in, and now has an older sister to eventually become closer to.

Meanwhile, Chang-bok is lumbered with picking up the ransom money as the kidnappers decide to proceed with the plan and share it with Chang-bok and Tae-in. This abrogation of responsibility has a knock on effect for Cho-Hee as the contingency plan should they fail to get the money is to send her to a pair of child traffickers. Not your average child traffickers mind you, since they also run a chicken farm.

This rural setting is significant in highlighting the desperation of those outside urban life in trying to survive. Like Tae-in and Chang-bok they may not necessarily be bad people, but eggs and poultry won’t keep them afloat, and getting their hands even dirtier is the only way to stay alive financially. It creates an endless cycle of exploitation whether it is for financial or personal gain, the only crime they can see is not asking questions.

Using Tae-in as the one to find his conscience might be a cynical move because of his impairments, yet the conceit is how far he comes despite his inability to express himself vocally. He is arguably at the bottom of the social ladder for this reason but juxtaposed with Cho-Hee’s father dithering on the ransom – because her brother is the golden child of the family – the lesson is clear: money can’t buy class or love.  

Cho-Hee’s journey parallels Tae-in’s in how both learn to accept someone different from themselves, although Cho-Hee still makes attempts to escape when she can, again with devastating far reaching consequences. The film’s open ends is gravid with the possibility of a terrifying fall out of these events, with only the tiniest sliver of hope for one of them, and even that is tenuous.

Hong may be a first time director yet the confidence and assuredness of her direction doesn’t reveal any signs that this is the work of a rookie. Beginning like a black comedy, the tonal shift to stark, gnarly drama is gradual but not unexpected given the themes and content, but also effortless. Violence is not shown so scenes of the two young girls frolicking innocently in the sun are forced to clash with any gruesome imagery.

Something of a heartthrob in Korea, Yoo Ah-in really pushes himself to play someone as unbecoming and unfortunate as Tae-in, mastering the trick of emoting through physical performance alone, convincing us this mute yokel has a soul. Yoo Jae-myung’s fatherly approach to Chang-bok is vital to their chemistry, whilst it is hard not to favour the two youngsters Lee Ga-eun and especially Moon Seung-Ah as the other stands out here.

Voice Of Silence is a character driven piece with a potent story to frame this study of humanity’s worst and darkest traits in a world where wanting and having are distant concepts to one another. Humorous and warm yet bleak and incisive, we may not need another reminder of how messy the modern world is but when it is told like this, we are compelled to take notice.