Lee Hae-young’s The Silenced is a lot of things at once. The 2015 South Korean picture features a screenplay by the director, with gorgeous cinematography by Kim Il-yeon and lush, spectral music by Dalparan.
Hae-young has said that he wanted The Silenced to progress through a host of different genres and he certainly accomplishes the feat, but it’s hard to argue he hammers any particular point home. The ensuing jumble is less cogent narrative and more passé walkthrough.
Park Bo-young stars as an ill Korean girl named Ju-ran. She’s dropped off at a sanatorium for young women. It’s soon apparent that the sanatorium is more ominous than meets the eye, with a headmistress (Uhm Ji-won) hiding some sort of immoral plan and barely concealing an affection for the occupying Japanese.
Ju-ran is renamed Shizuko and the other young ladies at the school are given likewise Japanese names. She befriends Yeon-deok (Park So-dam), who is called Kazue, and is tormented by Yuka (Kong Ye-ji). Soon, Ju-ran discovers that students are disappearing. She also discovers weird superhuman powers, which come in handy when all hell breaks loose.
The Silenced starts off well, lacing an atmospheric tale of sinister doings in Korea circa 1938. The country is under the throes of Japanese occupation and the sanatorium is hellbent on converting the girls to the culture of their overlords. They are stripped of their Korean identities. They even speak Japanese, all with the wonder of a trip to Tokyo overhead.
The headmistress has the girls go through demanding athletic testing, with the fittest girls rewarded. Ju-ran is initially rather weak. She coughs up blood and is docketed with “TB” by Yuka, who still isn’t over the preceding Shizuko and can’t understand why everyone’s moving on.
This sets mysterious groundwork and gives us a reason to pay attention to what Ju-ran is going through. When her symptoms clear up, she decides that she’s been cured thanks to her friendship with Yeon-deok. But when she makes one hell of a long jump, she starts to think something else is afoot. Boy, is she right.
The good news is that Bo-young is a lot of fun to watch. She is wide-eyed and superb as she progresses from a cautious and removed girl to a gratified even spine-chilling menace to society. Her intensity is convincing, even if the plot isn’t. Ditto for So-dam, who anchors the chronicle when Hae-young goes off the wall.
The bad news is that things are steered without regard for the immaculate build of the first half of the film. While Hae-young ably contends with red-tinged symbolism and indistinct figures, he almost entirely disregards any ghostly suggestiveness with a swerving bent for utter convention.
Gratefully, The Silenced makes up for its insecure pacing and unadventurous plot with a satisfying blowout finish that finds Ju-ran really letting her hair down. Hae-young almost blows it, but there’s still a lot to like about this horror/thriller/science-fiction/action picture.