Voice of Silence (PG13)
Starring Yoo Ah-In, You Chea-Myung
Directed by Hong Eui-Jeong
You could be unsettled by this quirky and darkly humorous Korean crime drama from indie writer-director Hong Eui-Jeong. But at the same time, you'd go aw-shucks too.
Think of this as part criminal skid flick and part juvenile kid flick.
Two lowly villagers, Tae-In (#Alive’s Yoo Ah-In) and Chang-Bok (Stranger’s You Chea-Myung), are employed to clean up the bloody mess in a secluded warehouse every time their brutal gangster bosses finish killing off their tied-up victims there.
Now you may also be disturbed — in a parental sense. The two underlings — honest men in a bad vocation — are tasked to kidnap in an amateurish caper an astute, tough 11-year-old schoolgirl, Cho-Hee (Moon Seung-Ah).
The deal is to hold her for ransom for a couple of days. But things go unexpectedly wrong, the abduction drags on and somehow the kid ends up helping her captors bury the body bags in the woods in a kinda Dexter Goes To Primary School way. The unfazed girl casually picks up blood-soaked litter as though they are flowers. Mom alert — this isn't highly recommended in any child development course.
But — dig this (no pun intended) — you'll surely be charmed by director Hong's goodness-within-badness feature film debut too. Cho-Hee forms a budding sibling relationship with the younger kidnapper, Tae-In, an enclosed mute who follows orders with such simplistic innocence you know that apart from his macabre job, he's a babysitter with a heart of gold. All the man covets is a step up in status and a slick suit which he takes from the body of a dead mobster he's about to dump.
Here's the deal with this small-scale, engrossing black comedy, Voice of Silence.
It's uneven. You get uncomfy scenes. Doomed dudes are strung up above large Dexter-style plastic sheets before they are terminated.
But it's cutesy too. In the remote ramshackle hideout where she is held, the abducted girl becomes an accidental big sister to her accidental captor's real kid sis, Moon-Joo (Lee Ka-Eun), a lovable unwashed moppet.
The urban Cho-Hee helps the rural wild child keep her messy home tidy by teaching her table manners, tucking away the strewn clothes and basically civilising the latter's unschooled, unhygienic instincts. Thus turning her precarious terms of confinement into precocious terms of endearment. Cho-Hee, as you can expect from any competent left-field plot, becomes part of the family.
These days, I guess, post-Oscar winner Parasite, any self-respecting Korean drama that bites needs to throw in some stark social class enlightenment like this.
Voice of Silence is effectively good. But it's also frustratingly offbeat in the way only frustratingly offbeat Korean dramas can be. You're not sure whether to chuckle along with the clean-up set-up here which has been portrayed to look as light, blithe and as comical as possible.
The baddies look goofy and the throat slitting may be done off-screen but hey, it's still bloody murder committed in the proximity of a minor. Plus, there's also a gang of wicked child traffickers in the village drugging stolen kids and selling them based on blood type who are scary for being so mum-and-pop normal. They are played for bungling laughs but seriously, there's absolutely nothing funny at all about predators. Man, think of all the traumatised mums watching this.
Still, thing is, the more you get drawn into this movie, the more you won't avert your gaze. For you'll certainly want to see how this story ends. Even as it kicks sentimentality aside with an uncompromising Euro-style arthouse finish. Director Hong's initial unfilmed script garnered top accolades at both Sundance and the Venice Biennale back in 2016.
Because, for sure, you get the full effect of high quality Korean filmmaking here. Something which these folks often do so well with top-notch acting, tight scenes and their in-built propensity for sprinkling a simple tale with clever details which just seem so ordinarily ironic.
Tae-In, the abductor, is so green in villainy that he uses his own saliva — a dead giveaway — to seal the ransom note. And there's a scene where Cho-Hee flees to a leering man on a bicycle for help which throws you a really solid curveball.
The best of the proceedings is the spiralling chain of errors here which ensures that in this Asian story, both cause and effect head off in different karmic directions. I won't give it away but suffice it to say that sometimes collecting ransom money for the first time ever in frantic nervousness can be really hazardous to one's health.
While the best of the beating heart here is, of course, the link-up between Mute Man and Kiddie.
Yoo's Tae-In, the unlikely captor, is spot-on as he bashes through the confusing unknown as the film's hulking conscience who's hemmed in by silence. Moon's Cho-Hee — chosen out of 300 applicants in the audition — the calm captive, is precise as the little counter foil who's hemmed in by captivity.
As the urbanised, educated player here, she's a smart kid who's the only one that is fully aware of her situation as she seeks to ingratiate and escape, knowing that her bargaining father may not wish to pay as much ransom for the return of a daughter as for a son. The great subliminal thing about this flick is that while you think Cho-Hee is the anointed companion here, she is actually the judgement.
“You need to look sad. If you grin like that, your parents will tell you to stay here,” she's instructed by her abductors while posing too happily for ransom photographs as she starts to enjoy her confinement with her newfound family.
Same thing with the audience. (***1/2)
Photo: Clover Films/Golden Village