Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: Hong Eui-jeong
Writer: Hong Eui-jeong
Stars: Yoo Ah-in, Yoo Jae-myung, Moon Seung-ah
By Calum Cooper
“Voice of Silence” (2020) is a great example of juxtaposition. Although its setup is bathed in an inherent darkness, its tone and narrative is a lot warmer than one would expect. It does not mitigate the darkness, but it makes what would have been a serious melancholic piece in any other hands a surprisingly charming one in the hands of writer/director Hong Eui-jeong.
Yoo Ah-in of “Burning” (2018) plays Tae-in, a mute man who works as a “cleaner”, a mercenary hired by criminal organisations to dispose of dead bodies once their superior is finished with them. He and his partner, Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung) appear to have been in the business for a while. Long enough anyway that when they are asked to take care of the organisation’s next kidnap victim for a few days they don’t question it.
But when they get to the location, they find that their target is an 11-year-old girl named Cho-hee (Moon Seung-ah). The pair are at a loss on what to do with her, and so Tae-in keeps her at his home in the outskirts. When certain developments arise with their superior, Tae-in effectively has to keep Cho-hee until further notice.
The film is marketed as a crime drama, but it strangely feels more at home within the comedy genre. It is not inherently humorous, but Director Hong is able to take a situation that would commonly be taken with utmost seriousness – criminals kidnapping a wee girl – and create something surprisingly good-natured. This is because her character work and central themes are grounded in morality in spite of the film’s amoral premise.
The questionable back and forth nature of Tae-in and Cho-hee’s dynamic is the most interesting element, as it is never fully clear where they stand with each other despite the situation. It makes for fascinating moments of humour, tension, and even suspense.
From the first few scenes, where our perceptions of Tae-in and Chang-bok go from common farmers to meticulous kidnappers to common subordinates, Director Hong establishes a strange gentleness to the pair, Tae-in especially. Even though they are at the centre of the criminal underworld, the two of them are only criminals by name and not by heart. When Tae-in has to keep Cho-hee at his place, he introduces her to his sister Moon-ju (Lee Ga-eun), and allows the two to interact, with Cho-hee quickly teaching Moon-ju many of her own skill sets, be it drawing or folding clothes. There’s an unlikely friendship between the two that’s very sweet, but never goes so far as to forget that Cho-hee is still here against her will. Tae-in’s inability to speak twined with his occupation gives him a Quasimodo-esque feel to his character, with actor Yoo’s performance being one of great expressive range, as we read the conflict and uncertainty of what he is doing on his face. At times he seems protective of Cho-hee. At others he seems irritated by her. We can never quite tell. Either way he is a character who doesn’t know what he has got himself into, but knows that it can’t lead to anywhere good.
Park Jung-hoon’s cinematography graciously compliments the film’s oddly gentle tone, with his warm colour palette and beautiful capturing of the Korean landscapes that occupy much of the setting. Even as the film begins to enter grimmer territory with its second half, the cinematography stays consistently vibrant and almost welcoming. It’s almost like the film cannot help but like the world in which it is set in, rather like Cho-hee herself, who comes to strangely admire Tae-in and Moon-ju’s home despite its impoverished state. The questionable back and forth nature of Tae-in and Cho-hee’s dynamic is the most interesting element, as it is never fully clear where they stand with each other despite the situation. It makes for fascinating moments of humour, tension, and even suspense as we never quite know if Cho-hee is going to resign herself with her situation – she herself says that her dad would probably be fine with just her brother rather than her too – or make some daring dash for freedom once she’s gained Tae-in’s trust.
I do think the film loses a lot of its momentum towards the end unfortunately. It starts to take itself more seriously, and begins shaking off the unorthodox atmosphere that made it so distinct to begin with in favour of more sinister antagonists and quick answers. It’s almost as if the film writes itself into a corner and can’t get out of it. It’s an interesting corner for sure, but it’s a corner nonetheless. As such the ultimate resolution feels messy at best and unfinished at worst. The film has a solid idea, but it doesn’t really end – it just sort of stops.
Nevertheless, I think there is enough uniqueness within the fabric of “Voice of Silence” to warrant a viewing. I certainly can’t think of any other film I’ve seen like it. With great performances, particularly that of Yoo Ah-in, an intriguing premise, and compelling themes on choice, morality, and perhaps guardianship too in some ways, “Voice of Silence” bodes a solid start for Director Hong, and is but another demonstration on how rich and creative eastern cinema can be once we, in Bong Joon-ho’s words, “overcome the one inch barrier of subtitles”.