The Silenced is a Korean horror film inspired by the Japanese control of Korea during World War II. Shizuko (really Joo-ran) is forced into a boarding school for unwell teenage girls in Seoul by her father and stepmother as they leave for Tokyo in 1938. The headmistress promises to help Shizuko recover from Tuberculosis through a strict regimen of injections, vitamins, herbs, diet, exercise, and proper Japanese education. Unfortunately, Shizuko’s assigned Japanese name is the same as a popular student who recently left without warning, and she must carry the burden of everyone’s anger and disappointment at the school’s strict regulations and silence on anything not promoted as a proper way of life by the Imperialist government.
As an exploration of historical oppression within one’s own country, The Silenced succeeds. The girls in the school who do not assimilate to the forced social order are punished brutally by their peers. They learn this behavior from the teachers themselves, as those of Korean descent, no matter how high in the organization of the school, are treated significantly worse than teachers of Japanese descent.
Everyone is fighting for an increasingly unlikely chance to escape the torment of being a literal second class citizen in Seoul for the idealized utopia of Tokyo as taught to them through a paramilitary school. Only the strongest will survive in the future Japanese empire, and those who continue to see themselves as Koreans will be deemed weak, unnecessary, and replaceable. It’s a terrifying reflection of actual historical events through the lens of a more traditional haunted school horror film.
This sort of K-Horror schoolgirl film comes in two varieties: the absurd and the maudlin; The Silenced falls into the latter. There is just a wonderful, honest sadness about Joo-ran’s story that makes you want to keep watching even when the structure of the film routinely falls apart. Sure, there are attempts to pull all the elements back together throughout the film, but they are patently ridiculous. The true connecting thread is this sense of despair for a young woman who is trapped in an endless cycle of suffering because of her physical body.
Joo-ran is a young woman. She is quiet. She is weak. She is ill. She is a stepdaughter. She is the second Shizuko through no choice of her own. And, worse of all, she is a Korean in a Japanese military empire. There is no way she can ever escape her fate of being less than in 1938. Add on the strange side effects of the school’s supplement program, disappearing girls, and ghost sightings, and there is no way you can believe she will have a happily ever after.
The Silenced is not a great horror film, but it is an ambitious one. So much rich, unexpected territory is covered in such an honest way that you start to forgive it for its flaws. The film is not particularly scary or consistent, but it is fascinating in all its risks, depth, and beauty.