Recent Korean cinema has been suffused with darkness, offering tales of murder, depravity, torture and perversion – Park Chan-wook's Vengeance trilogy, Kim Ki-duk's The Isle and Bad Guy, Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil and so on. While these movies vary in their degree of “realism”, they all have a kind of pulpy grimness. While Hwang Dong-hyuk's Silenced (Do-Ga-Ni) draws on this kind of darkness, his film deals with real-life monsters rather than generic psychopaths.
Based on a novel by Gong Ji-young, which in turn was based on an actual case which came to light in 2005, Silenced uses genre techniques to tell the story of systematic physical and sexual abuse in a school for deaf children and the efforts of a new teacher to expose the crimes. The first act plays like a horror film, with haunted young widower Kang In-ho (Gong Yu), having left his young daughter with his mother in Seoul, driving to the remote town of Mujin to take up a post acquired through the influence of one of his own teachers. Under the credits, Hwang intercuts the drive through poor weather with of a young boy wandering into a tunnel. For a moment, we believe that Kang has hit the boy – but his car has run over a small deer at the same moment that the boy is hit by a train.
The heavy portent of this opening builds as he arrives at the school. The children stare at him suspiciously, unresponsive to his efforts to be friendly. After meeting Principal Lee Kang-suk and his twin brother, chief administrator Lee Kang-bok (a duel role by Jang Gwang), a large sum of money is demanded from him as payment for the job he has just started. Having borrowed the amount from his mother, when he goes to hand it over he finds the principal making a payment to local police inspector Jang. Then, as he is about to leave the school building that evening, he hears a child crying in fear, apparently inside the girls' washroom; but the janitor prevents him from going inside — “kids here make strange noises for fun,” he's told.
He sees kids with bruised faces, eventually walking in on a fellow teacher, Park Bo-hyun, as he viciously beats one of the students, Jeon Min-su (Baek Seong-hwan), in the teachers' common room as his colleagues quietly go about their own work. The air of menace and fear escalates until Kang is finally led by the girl Jin Yu-ri (Jung In-seo) to the basement laundry where he finds the principal's sister Yoon Ja-ae (Kim Joo-ryung) holding another girl's head in a washing machine. Confronting the woman in outrage, he's told that it's her job as residence counsellor to discipline the children. The girl, Kim Yeon-du (Kim Hyun-soo), collapses and Kang rushes her to hospital.