Voice for the silenced
It might have shocked South Koreans and ignited a searing controversy in the country, but Silenced has yet to bring closure to the victims of the sex crimes the film so harrowingly depicts.
Silenced, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is a dramatisation of a novel of the same name that was itself inspired by a serial sex abuse case at a school for the hearing impaired in the southwestern Korean city of Gwangju between 2000 and 2004. Its subject was reportedly so disturbing that it had difficulty raising funding, but was eventually picked up for distribution by media giant CJ Entertainment.
The film is dark, intense and chilling - all the more so for being based on true events. It stars Gong Yoo as a teacher who, arriving at a provincial city to teach at a school for the hearing impaired, finds his new students haunted and reluctant to interact with him. He makes the shocking discovery that teachers and staff are physically and sexually abusing the children. Enlisting the help of a human rights activist (Jung Yu-mi) to expose the cruelty, he finds the abusers are protected by the local community and judiciary.
If the film is harrowing, the reality is worse in a nation where sexual crime is often swept under the carpet, or subject only to light sanction. The case came to light in 2005 when a teacher alerted human rights groups to the serial abuse. The result: the whistleblower was fired. An investigation only began after the incident was featured on TV.
Four school staffers, including its principal and his brother, were convicted in 2006 of sexually assaulting at least eight students. But only two served time; the principal and a teacher were freed on appeal. Victims alleged that members of the Gwangju establishment, and institutions including churches, lobbied for the perpetrators.
Despite being limited to viewers aged 18 and over, Silenced was a surprise hit on its release in the country in September. It was No1 in South Korea's box office for four weeks, won more than four million viewers, and was specially screened for President Lee Myung-bak.
'The film is about a shocking situation and what appealed to the audience is that it is about something people would normally find very hard to believe, but - terrible as it was - it did happen,' says Kim Yong-jin, professor of film studies at Myungji University and a movie critic.
There was a public outcry, with furious calls for the legal case to be re-opened. A civic committee to win belated justice for the victims was formed. Finally, the authorities reacted. In November, Inhwa School in Gwangju, where the real-life abuses took place, was closed by municipal authorities. The city also confiscated the assets of the foundation that ran it. A special police taskforce was launched to re-investigate the assaults; 14 teachers and school employees were booked for alleged sexual offences.
Meanwhile, the powerful film was winning international plaudits. It garnered two awards at the Udine Far Eastern Film Festival in Italy, and has played around the world.
Other elements of the 'Korean Wave' of pop culture that has so entranced Asia since the turn of the millennium - squeaky clean pop acts and syrupy TV soap operas - steer well clear of controversy. But film is edgier: Silenced is not the first Korean film to address taboos. 'There is definitely a dark side to the Korean psyche, a feeling of bitterness and victimhood. For years, I thought there was a Hollywood rule that you have to have a happy ending but in Korean movies, there has to be an unhappy ending,' says Peter Beck, who directs the Asia Foundation's Korea branch. 'There are few warm and fuzzy Korean movies.'
South Korea emerged from nearly three decades of authoritarian governance with democratisation in 1987. After the presidency was won for the first time by a liberal, opposition politician - the late Kim Dae-jung - in 1997, its film directors began handling divisive issues.
Thrillers Shiri (1999) and JSA (or Joint Security Area, 2000) broke conventions by featuring the once-demonised North Korean enemy as sympathetic characters. Silmido (2003) resurrected a bizarre cold war story: the secret recruitment and training of a group of convict assassins, and their deaths in a murky 1971 firefight with security forces. The King and the Clown (2005) dealt with the taboo of homosexuality in old Korea; Chaser (2008) covered police corruption; and 2011's Unbowed examines an allegedly unfair trial from 2007.
But for the abused Inhwa students, justice remains elusive. Seven lodged a civil suit against their tormentors, calling for five teachers and one school employee to pay 20 million won (HK$132,723) in compensation to each plaintiff. They also demanded 220 million won from the school foundation.
Last week it was reported that their suit is to be transferred from Seoul's court system to Gwangju's, where the alleged crimes took place. The victims say the abusers are so well connected in Gwangju, where they were let off lightly, that justice there will be impossible. They have appealed to the Supreme Court to keep the case in Seoul, but the public outcry that promoted the visibility of their case has died down.
'In Korea, people gain interest in something very quickly and lose interest very quickly, so whether things will change permanently, nobody can tell,' film critic Kim says. 'The film has done its duty by bringing the issue to the fore. What happens next will show how mature or immature Korean society really is.' The case continues.
Silenced opens on Thursday