I’m very much a fan of east-Asian horror movies, and so by luck and Netflix, I stumbled across an interesting-looking Korean movie not too long ago, called by its English name, The Silenced.
Set in Seoul, then known as Gyeongseong, in the late 1930s, the story focuses on a sick young woman named Shizuko, sent to a sanitarium school. And if you noticed that I used a Japanese name for the character and not a Korean one, there’s a reason for that. At the time this movie takes place, Korea was under Japanese occupation, and one of the many societal changes that occurred then was to force the adoption of Japanese-style names instead of Korean ones, to bring the populace one step closer to accepting occupational rule by a foreign power. (For a brief overview of the occupation, there’s at least a Wikipedia page, which I recommend reading.) As someone making at least half-hearted efforts to learn Japanese, I can pick out the language when I hear it, and suddenly when a character just starts speaking a language I recognize when I expect a language I can’t recognise… I threw me off, and caught my attention, and made me want to learn more about the setting.
It also made me keenly aware of how much cultural time-period markers are not universal. In North America, we may associate the 1930s with a certain style of fashion, mode of speech, level of technology, and when we see movies set then, we don’t have to have a full history lesson to centre us in the moment. 1930s South Korea? I was forced to confront that I knew absolutely nothing about it. You don’t need a history lesson to appreciate The Silenced, though; reading a book on the Japanese occupation isn’t central to understanding the movie as a whole. But if you have an ear for languages and culture, you may be able to pick up on a few things that may confuse you if you’re entirely unaware that there was an occupation to begin with.
Anyway, Shizuko, who we later come to learn is also called Ju-Ran, is sick and sent to a girl’s boarding school to recover. Immediately she faces opposition, as she shares the same name as a previous girl who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The official story is that the previous Shizuko went home, but the girls there doubt that, as it was sudden and unannounced. The new Shizuko has TB, and is shown to barely be able to handle any exertion lest it send her into a coughing fit. She’s put on a new medication to try and combat the illness, and that’s where things start to get weird.
Shizuko starts seeing things. Creepy things. Things like one of the girls being twisted and jerky while crawl-shuffling under her bed.
Then that student disappears, and everyone’s told she just went home. Meanwhile, Shizuko finds a strange sticky clear fluid under that girl’s bed, and she’s sure she wasn’t imagining it.
This isn’t the only time Shizuko sees something and a girl disappears, leaving behind more of that clear goo. Shizuko also begins to show signs of recovery, her physical strength and stamina increasing to the point where she can run again and breathe easily. But it doesn’t stop there. Her strength continues to grow, as does her temper, and her resistance to pain.
It’s at this point where watchers start to wonder if the current Shizuko is possessed by the previous one in some way, if the previous Shizuko died and her ghost is lashing out not only at those who wronger her in life, but also those who wrong the girl who shares her name. It’s the sort of explanation that makes perfect sense in horror movies, especially East Asian horror movies where it all looks like a ghost story. But the truth behind this movie is even stranger than you might imagine.
And be warned, there are some spoilers a-comin’!
The problem turns out not to be a ghost but instead a program funded by the Japanese occupational government to create a race of super-soldiers. The medication that Shizuko has to take — indeed, all the students have to take medication provided by the school, and nobody questions it because everyone is there due to illness (though the vast majority are unspecified and unpresented…) — is part of that program, changing her into someone stronger, impervious to pain, someone capable of fighting for the Japanese government in times of need. None of them consented. Not all of them survive.
And what’s really impressive about The Silenced is that aside from the clear goo, everything actually ties together and makes sense. It shifts from seeming like a horror movie to a historical sci-fi thriller, and it does it fairly seamlessly. The transition makes sense, the story aspects fit together and get explanations, and given that all this happens within a massive tonal shift, that really impressed me. It’s not many movies that can do that and still stay cohesive. It’s a mind-screw for a while, trying to wrap your brain around how something switched genres right in the middle, and admittedly some of the special effects of Shizuko’s later superpowers were kind of cheesy, but on the whole, I’d say it was pretty well done.
The only loose end is the issue of the clear goop left behind after Shizuko sees someone losing control after they have a bad reaction to the chemical mixture that’s slowly changing them. There are a couple of things this could be, but nothing is really made of it; it seems like it’s there just to convince Shizuko that she didn’t image things, that there’s a physical source of the creepy things she sees. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that a movie which ties so many things together leaves that one hanging, with just potential reading between the lines to try and give it reason.
The Silenced deals with some very twisted and disturbing subject matter. There’s the obvious issue of the Japanese occupation and forced cultural integration, which I mentioned at the beginning of the review. There’s the issue of testing unknown treatments without informed consent, a process which is still relatively new in the field of medicine, and that’s depressing enough, but the movie stresses that part of the reason that the sanitarium/boarding school was chosen as part of the project is that it works best on adolescent women, and also because nobody’s going to question, “These girls are taking medication we give them because they’re sick, they have no parental supervision, and if any one of them dies, it’s easy to get rid of evidence and just tell everyone they went home.” It all works because people are kept ignorant. The movie’s primary antagonist hates her country and wants Japan to have greater control, hence her being complicit in the supersoldier program. There’s a lot that’s shown, not said, and The Silenced largely seems to respect the viewer’s intelligence enough to not spell absolutely everything else, to have a fanatical woman without a character commenting, “Wow, she’s fanatical.”
I have to say, if you’re into East Asian horror, this is one you should probably check out. Even though it’s not strictly a horror movie. The story’s certainly interesting, the acting fantastic (with a bonus helping of subtext along the way…), and I still can’t get over how well it was all put together. It’s disturbing and creepy in all the right places, atmospheric and tense without relying on jump scares, and has a lot to say about a very controversial time in Korea’s history. It’s on Canadian Netflix as of the time this review, so if that’s open to you, I recommend taking a couple of hours to enjoy it.