Hong Eui-jeon’s Voice of Silence (Sorido Eopsi, 2021) is an emotionally satisfying film. It bares its soul but it also provokes the conflicted feeling of wanting more. It tells the story of Chang-bok (You Chea-myung) and his mute assistant Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in), who sell eggs in the village, but whose sideline of work is more grisly. They work for a local gangster, preparing a space for execution, and afterward, they clean up and dispose of the body.
When their boss makes the unusual request to hide someone until the ransom is paid, Chang-bok tries to explain that the request is outside of their expertise. Unbeknownst to them, the victim is a little girl. Unable to decline the job, things spiral out of control when their employer is killed and the father of the kidnapped girl abandons her. Tae-in takes her home with him to the countryside, where he lives with his younger sister. An unexpected bond forms between the pair.
Cinema is typically a medium in which ideas are expressed through words. Tae-in never speaks. The bond between him and the little girl develops through the unexpected predicament they find themselves in. There are a few moments when his silence and social awkwardness, compared to her lucid alertness, recalls the scene in Frankenstein (Whale, 1931), between the monster and the little girl. She represents the innocence of youth and Tae-in the darker side of the adult world.
Tae-in remains a mystery, his silence distancing viewers from him. We presume to know what he’s thinking and feeling, but he remains closed-off. There’s the question of how much we project upon a character when watching film. In this case, we think him to be socially awkward and introverted. He’s a gentle giant mixed up in a morally dubious sideline of work, eerily similar to Frankenstein’s duality of a vulnerable and fearful presence.
We communicate not only through words but instinctively through body language and facial expressions. Voice of Silence leans into this other mode of communication. Eui-jeon relies on her audience to bring themselves to the film because it’s the audience that gives Tae-in – and the film itself– a voice, simply by emotionally responding to the actions and movements of the characters.
Korean films have an energetic presence, mixing genres and tones. One of the most jarring examples of this is when Bong Joon-ho flits between the humorous and the serious in his serial killer thriller, Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok, 2003). Eui-jeon elects for restraint in her approach, which transfers to the characters. Instead of juxtaposing Tae-in’s silence with an energetic Chang-bok, she restrains his energy. The story and the characters benefit from this decision, infusing the pair with a humorous charm as we watch Chang-bok and Tae-in become embroiled in their employer’s ransom ploy.
The filmmaker understands that a character’s energy is complementary, and the art of storytelling is character dynamics. It reminds me of how, in David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), detective Somerset’s (Morgan Freeman) rationale and wisdom offsets detective Mills’ (Brad Pitt) impulsive and enthusiastic nature. Then when the antagonist is introduced, he complements these opposing traits.
The emphasis on the emotions of the characters and the bonds that form between them stirs up impressions of feminine sensitivity, in place of what would have likely been a masculine focus on narrative over feelings. There’s potential for a more complex narrative, but Eui-jeon’s intent is to offer a simple emotional expression.
Some audiences may feel that the director has so much affection for her characters that the narrative is neglected. But not developing the narrative complements the silent character, who feels isolated, and so a detachment to narrative provokes viewers to feel detached and lost in the company of Sound of Silence‘s three main characters.