Voice of Silence (2020)
Director: Hong Eui-jeong
Screenwriter: Hong Eui-jeong
Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Yoo Jae-myung, Moon Seung-ah, Lee Ka-eun
Voice of Silence is the feature debut from Hong Eui-jeong, included in the Glasgow Film Festival programme as part of their spotlight on South Korean cinema. It is a fairly low-stakes and often gentle crime drama opening with two men who, at first, seem like ordinary farm workers. Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung) and Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) make their way to a warehouse, their truck loaded with vegetables; they busy themselves with preparing the room, laying down plastic and bits of string, which we assume is for their produce; they seem perfectly calm, as though this is just any other ordinary day. As they’re working, the camera slowly pans around the room before focusing on a man, beaten and bloody, dangling from a rope attached to the ceiling. While the attitude of the two men remains the same, the entire scene suddenly feels different. Principally that, despite the context of the scene, there’s a distinct lack of threat.
This slightly odd atmosphere in the opening moments becomes something of a microcosm for the rest of the film. The main plot revolves around an act of kidnapping, but the way the story is told feels more akin to a typical end-of-summer, coming-of-age drama. Hong continuously highlights this off-kilter dichotomy between what you know to be happening and what you’re actually seeing, which frequently makes for a comedic and even quite sweet atmosphere. When Tae-in and Chang-bok are instructed by their bosses to pick up an 11-year-old girl, Cho-hee (Moon Seung-ah), and hold her for ransom, it feels like nothing more than a slightly cumbersome task. They’re neither too happy nor upset about it, and they resign themselves to doing it, but in contrast to the typical role of comedic thugs we’re used to seeing in Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino films, it’s amazing how Hong makes this clearly illegal act feel anything but criminal.
Korea has probably never looked more beautiful. Set in the height of summer, Hong seems to take particular pleasure in filming the lush green fields which surround Tae-in’s house. The heat and the colour of the Korean countryside radiate out of the screen so that you can practically smell it. Cho-hee, who is initially scared for her life, soon cannot help but to fall in love with her kidnapper’s home and starts to act as though she’s on a summer holiday. Some of the standout moments see Cho-hee lashed to Tae-in’s back so she won’t try to escape as they cycle under some truly stunning pink and purple sunsets, each character entranced by the sight of this natural beauty.
The other side of this atmosphere is also neatly effective – despite its friendly presentation, the narrative cannot fully escape its criminal nature. In the film’s second half, Cho-hee and Tae-in meet far more dangerous characters who are introduced in such a sickly-sweet way that our suspicions are immediately raised. They are indeed doing something very sinister and horrifying, but thanks to the atmosphere Hong has constructed, we can understand this without having to actually see it – something that is equally as impressive as it is relieving.
The film does run out of steam towards its third act however. The off-kilter mood that has been created is by far its greatest achievement, but while it successfully plays around with perspective and context, the film never manages to resolve its own narrative, unfortunately rounding out a strong beginning and middle with an ending that seems to fizzle out into nothing.
The same is true with some of the choices regarding Tae-in’s character. He is mute (the silent voice of the title), which adds to the film’s primary effect as we’re never able to fully get to know him because it’s difficult to know what he’s thinking. Depending on how you read the film, Tae-in’s behaviour could be seen equally as charming, uncaring, or even heart-breaking. Yoo Ah-in, who was so excellent in Burning (2019), is just as strong here, communicating everything with his highly expressive body language and his deliberately passive facial expressions. His breathing and grunting noises often hold your attention more strongly than some of the written dialogue. However, while the character is thematically important, he is always held at arms-length and after a while we begin to narratively disengage with him too. This is particularly disappointing given the strength of the performance.
Whilst not everything hits its mark and the film appears to disintegrate somewhat towards the end, Voice of Silence is an impressive debut nonetheless, its screenwriter-director Hong Eui-jeong announcing herself as a talent to look out for in the future. So rarely has there been a film so gentle and heart-warming that also so deeply challenges your sense of morality.
Written by Jack Cameron
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