Voice Of Silence

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Voice Of Silence
"Hong Eui-jeong directs with such assurance and such flair that it's hard to believe this is her first feature." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) and Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung) are partners in crime, but not in the exciting way you might expect. They work as cleaners, tidying up crime scenes after the fact to make sure the police never find them. It's a job, and they don't have a lot of choice, living in a poor rural community. Occasionally they do other bits and pieces on the side. When a dangerous crime boss asks them to look after a kidnapped girl, both men feel out of their depth, but they don't have enough power to have any choice, so they take the girl, Cho-hee (Moon Seung-ah) to Tae-in's house, and that's where things begin to go in an unexpected direction.

Cho-hee's first reaction upon seeing the place is one of shock. Coming from a very different world, she can't quite believe that anyone lives in such a small, squalid place - let alone two people, Tae-in and his young sister Moon-ju (Lee Ka-eun). At first she hopes that she won't be there for long. Although Chang-bok tries to reassure her with lies, she knows that it's just a case of her father needing to hand over some money. When things go wrong further up the line and she is not released, she begins to think that it's because her father doesn't love her. She's a resourceful 11-year-old, however, and not about to give in to despair, so she sets about cleaning up the house and giving Moon-ju her first basic schooling. Despite herself, she begins to form an emotional bond with her kidnappers as well.

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More than just another tale about Stockholm syndrome, Voice Of Silence presents a complex relationship which changes the lives of all four main characters. Chang-bok comes and goes, having a home and a life elsewhere, and does his best to try to find a solution that will let the girl go safely home. Tae-in, however, has little else to do with his life. He's partially deaf and entirely mute, apparently never having had contact with anyone who could help him to communicate. His life has been a silent struggle as he has tried to take care of his sister, just about managing to feed and clothe her, without any real coping skills. Though she keeps her eyes open for a chance to scape, Cho-hee gradually teaches him how to take proper care of his domestic environment, and gives him and Moon-ju a sense of hope and ambition that they never had before.

There's a lot of joy in this film but it's balanced by tension because it seems impossible for this situation to last, and we know that even in the best case scenario, parting will lead to heartbreak. Unlike Cho-hee, we also know how little real power her captors have. At one point, one of Chang-bok's bosses advises him that the best chance of cutting their losses now lies in selling the girl. This seems to be the first time that Chang-bok and Tae-in have really thought about the consequences of the business they work in. For a film which also takes delight in scenes of children playing in the sun, this goes to some extremely dark places.

With a greater focus on character than plot, the film benefits from solid acting all round. Moon is seriously impressive in a complicated role, with Cho-hee caught between the fears of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. It's Yoo, however, who is the standout, taking his character through a remarkable arc. Tae-in changes not only in terms of his practical abilities but in terms of his moral impetus, finally gaining the confidence to face what's going on around him and start making his own decisions. They may not always be smart ones but they will ultimately change everything.

Hong Eui-jeong directs with such assurance and such flair that it's hard to believe this is her first feature. She builds in elements of deadpan comedy which help to carry us through the more distressing parts of the film, but also fills it with reminders of how dangerous the world can be for girls, disabled people and those who lack financial means. The threat of exploitation seems to lurk everywhere except where it is most expected.

Voice Of Silence will horrify you, charm you, make you laugh, thrill you and leave you on the brink of tears. This is the kind of work that cinema was invented for.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2021
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Voice Of Silence packshot
Two men work for a criminal organisation to clean up the aftermath messes. One day, they receive an unexpected order.

Director: Hong Eui-Jeong

Writer: Hong Eui-Jeong

Starring: Yoo Ah-In, Yoo Jae-Myung, Moon Seung-ah

Year: 2020

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: South Korea

Festivals:

Glasgow 2021

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