Voice of Silence (소리도 없이, Hong Eui-jeong, 2020)

“Once you join a family, you have to pitch in, right?” the aphorism-loving protagonist of Hong Eui-jeong’s disturbingly warmhearted crime caper Voice of Silence (소리도 없이, Sorido Eopsi) explains to a little girl who has recently come into his “care” as she dutifully begins massaging the earth towards a half-buried body. Partly an exploration of the family bond and its propensity to arise even in the most duplicitous of circumstances, Hong’s ironically cheerful drama is also a mild condemnation of the modern society and its capacity to push good people to do bad things in its infinite oppressions. 

Egg farmer Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung), for example, is a man of faith who places great stock in protestant virtues of hard work and humility. Yet he sees no irony in the sign reading “Today’s honest sweat is tomorrow’s happiness” on the wall of a disused barn where he carries out his second job preparing torture victims for gangsters and then disposing of the bodies even going so far as to say a little prayer for them, bible in hand, as he places them into shallow graves in the forest. He and his mute partner Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) dutifully wait outside as the violence takes place, rejecting entirely their sense of complicity with the corruption of the gangster world viewing themselves only as providing a service and taking pride in providing it well.

Nevertheless, when their “manager” pays them an unexpected visit and gives them an unusual assignment of “looking after” a person for a few days they can hardly refuse even as Chang-bok reminds him it’s not in their job description. Contrary to expectation, however, the “person” turns out not to be sequestered gangster but an 11-year-old girl, Cho-hee (Moon Seung-ah), whose father is haggling over a ransom payment. When the manager is consumed by the same system he previously operated, it leaves them with a problem. They can’t simply let the girl go because the kidnappers want their cut, but the father won’t pay up and so the only other option is handing her over to child traffickers. Chang-bok and more particularly Tae-in would rather that didn’t happen, but on the other hand they aren’t really doing too much to actively prevent it. 

Just as Chang-bok and and Tae-in are “egg farmers”, the child traffickers run their business out of a moribund chicken farm. The rural economy is apparently not faring so well in the modern society. Yet Hong’s countryside vistas are presented as an idyllic paradise with bluer than blue, cloudless skies and fields of verdant green. Then again those who live off the land are perhaps most aware of its compromises and of the price of survival. Chang-bok is fond of spouting vaguely religious aphorisms such as “whatever you do, do your best and be humble. Always be thankful for what you have”, later blaming his predicament on his recent laxity in attending church, but evidently sees no contradiction between his creed and way of life. He doesn’t want to hand Cho-hee over the child traffickers, but he won’t resist it either merely seeing it as an inevitable consequence of events already in play in which he is but a passive participant. 

Tae-in, meanwhile, though literally voiceless is beginning to reject his passivity. Apparently raised by Chang-bok from infancy, he is currently a guardian to a mysterious “sister”, Moon-joo (Lee Ga-eun) around 15 years younger than he is though no mention is made of their parents or what might have happened to them. Charged with taking care of Cho-hee he finds himself developing a paternal fondness for her while she quite unexpectedly slides neatly into his home, bringing a strangely maternal if perhaps in its own way problematic order in tidying the place up and giving Tae-il a more concrete sense of familial rootedness. When the pair picked her up, they wondered if Cho-hee’s father was haggling over the ransom amount because the kidnappers took his daughter when they meant to take his son. Chang-bok is morally outraged, believing sons and daughters should be treated the same and shocked a father would’t immediately do everything he could to protect his little girl. But Cho-hee knows only too well that they value her brother more and in fact doubts her father will help her. She carries these old fashioned patriarchal values into Tae-in’s village home, brushing Moon-joo’s rather feral hair, teaching her to fold clothes away neatly, instructing her to speak more politely to her brother and not to start eating until he has taken his first bite. 

Despite themselves, the four become an accidental family cheerfully enjoying ice lollies on a hot summer’s day trying to figure out a polaroid camera which has been bought for a slightly less happy purpose. There is perhaps an idea that Cho-hee might simply not return to her wealthy, urban family in which she feels unwanted and inferior but stay here in the more “innocent” countryside where the people are “honest”, value their daughters the same as their sons (even the child traffickers apparently charge the same discriminating only by age and blood type), and bury their bodies together. Chang-bok and Tae-in aren’t bad people, just members of a corrupt society who’ve internalised a sense of powerlessness that encourages them to be “humble” and complicit doing what they can to survive. Each marginalised by disability, Chang-bok walking with a pronounced limp and Tae-in rendered impotent by his inability to speak, they do not want to turn to “crime” but are trapped at the bottom of the social hierarchy and dependent on the illicit economy. Is Cho-hee any worse off with them than with the father who wouldn’t pay to get her back? The jury is most definitely out. 


Voice of Silence streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Start-Up (시동, Choi Jung-yol, 2019)

Two young men experience a failure to launch in Choi Jung-yol’s Start-Up (시동, Sidong), a much gentler coming of age tale than his 2016 feature debut One Way Trip. Like the earlier film, however, Start-Up finds its two heroes pulled in different directions while experiencing the same dilemmas, these being in the main a kind of toxic masculinity that sees them in part reject their respective maternal figures in internalised shame as sons who feel they should be but are fundamentally incapable of taking of care of them and perhaps concluding that their only familial connection must be disappointed and resentful.

We can see the boys’ sense of futility in the opening sequence in which they literally fail to kickstart a scooter that 18-year-old Taek-il (Park Jung-min), the hero, has somehow managed to buy on the internet but seems to be a dud. Eventually they wind up having an accident and being taken to the police station where Taek-il’s mother Jeong-hye (Yum Jung-ah) has to bail them out leaving even the desk officers looking quite embarrassed as she takes Taek-il to task for his irresponsibility, disappointed to learn he spent money intended for lessons to help him (belatedly) get his high school diploma on the useless scooter. He tells her he’s dropped out of school and has no interest uni, fiercely resenting her refusal to accept his decision while unwisely cutting in that she doesn’t have the money to send him anyway which earns him one of her trademark volleyball slaps. 

Taek-il’s unwise words perhaps hint at part of the reason he’s rejecting the life his mother wants for him in that he knows how much she’s suffered and sacrificed on his behalf and doesn’t want to add to her burden by encouraging her to overwork herself to pay for college when he doesn’t think he’s worth it anyway. Of course, he can’t say any of this to her, and she can’t tell him she only wants the best for him, so they alternate between silence and blazing rows with Taek-il retreating into peaceful visions of life on a desert island when everything gets too hard. Wanting to prove himself independent, he ends up running away but doesn’t have money to get very far so ends up working in a Chinese noodle restaurant in provincial Gun-san. 

His friend Sang-pil (Jung Hae-in), meanwhile, is an orphan living with his elderly grandmother (Go Doo-shim) who appears to be suffering from dementia and has been supporting the pair of them by peeling chestnuts. Like Taek-il, Sang-Pil desperately wants to be able to take care of his grandmother and make her life as easy as possible but is largely out of options which might be why he lets a shady friend, Dong-hwa (Yoon Kyung-ho), introduce him to his “company” which turns out to be a local loansharking gang for which Dong-hwa is an enforcer and debt collector. Sang-pil tells Taek-il that he’s got a job “in finance”, and though he’s conflicted enjoys the sense of self worth he gains as a working man earning money to look after grandma. He is too naive to realise that the first family they visit is aggressively nice to Dong-hwa because he’s probably been less than nice to them in the past, coming away with the mistaken idea that the job’s not so bad and people are grateful for the “service” they’re providing. 

A repeated gag sees both boys getting repeatedly beaten up, literally struck down every time they attempt to move forward. Taek-il finds himself punched in the stomach by an amateur boxer with problems of her own and thereafter knocked around by the eccentric chef at the Chinese restaurant (Ma Dong-seok), while Sang-pil is finally awakened to the dark side of his new job when he’s thrown through a glass doorway by a drunken client very clearly at the end of his tether. The answer is less fighting back than it is standing together and up for oneself as the boys begin to make mutual decisions about the future directions of their lives and the kind of men they’d like to be even if they still don’t quite know where they’re going. 

Start-Up’s genesis as an online webmanga might help to explain its myriad unresolved plot strands including the backstory of the mysterious boxing high school girl (Choi Sung-eun) who appears to have lost or become estranged from her family but ends up becoming the surrogate daughter of the kindly man who owns the Chinese restaurant (Kim Jong-Soo) which seems to be a haven for lost people of all ages looking for a place to call home, while Jeong-hye’s past success as a volleyball star is resolved as little more than an awkward punchline and her desire to start her own business which she is then swindled out of presented as something done solely for her son rather than for herself. The difficult economic circumstances of contemporary South Korea are certainly a factor in the boys’ malaise and general sense of hopelessness but it’s less Hell Joseon that’s trapping them than a complex web of familial love and resentment coupled with their desire as a young men to feel in control of their own lives rather than being constrained by parental expectation. “You should decide where to go first” Taek-il is repeatedly told, but when it comes right down to it the most important thing is figuring out how to start the engine, everything else you can figure out later.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Juror 8 (배심원들, Hong Seung-wan, 2019)

Juror 8 poster 1What is the role of the law in a free and democratic society? In an effort to democratise justice, Korea held its first jury trial in 2008 giving “the people” a voice in the courts. As might be expected the judiciary had its doubts. Where judges and lawyers are best placed to assess the evidence and draw their conclusions, might not ordinary citizens be swayed by emotion or argument? Then again, compassion might be a force sorely lacking in a legal process some might feel to have become too efficient in its keenness to see justice is done speedily, losing all important scrutiny and allowing corruption and complacency to sneak their way in.

Juror 8 (배심원들, Baesimwondeul), a courtroom comedy drama, subtly puts the nation on trial as it asks what the point of the law is if it’s wielded like a blunt object. The case in hand concerns a middle-aged man, Kang Du-sik (Seo Hyun-woo), accused of hitting his elderly mother (Lee Yong-yi) on the head with a hammer and then throwing her off the balcony to disguise the crime. Though the defendant made a confession to police shortly after the incident, he did so vaguely from a hospital bed after being knocked out and now claims he can’t remember the events in question. This presents a problem for the judiciary who had chosen this case for the first jury trial precisely because it seemed so open and shut, all the jury was supposed to do was consider sentencing. Now they’re being asked to consider guilt or innocence and asking lots of awkward questions in what was supposed to be a token effort on behalf of law enforcement to demonstrate that it is listening.

Everything might have gone to plan if it hadn’t been for problematic “Juror 8” Nam-woo (Park Hyung-sik ) who, despite giving some worryingly conservative answers in his interview, instantly sympathises with the suspect and worries that there are too many unanswered questions in the evidence presented. His conviction only strengthens when he wanders off trying to get to the patent office to file sample of a self-defence device he was trying to launch as a business and accidentally meets Kang who seems despondent and frightened, worried he really might be guilty but fundamentally unable to remember.

More cynical minds might ask if Kang’s memory lapse is merely convenient and he hopes to exploit the jury trial to win acquittal through sympathy. Having noticed that Kang has no fingers, Nam-woo insists on a test to see if he is able to swing a hammer only for others to point out that there is no real way to know if he is not physically able to do it or chooses not to to aid his case. Meanwhile, Kang sits sullenly like a defeated ball of pent-up rage, eventually exploding when the jury is handed a letter he claims he was forced to write expressing frustration with his mother’s refusal to sign a legal separation form so that he would be eligible to receive welfare payments.

As his lawyer later puts it, the real villain here is poverty. Kang was raised by a single-mother, something still frowned upon, who had to leave him alone to go out to work. She locked the door from the outside to keep him safe, but that also meant he was unable to escape a house fire and was badly burned at only five years old sustaining prominent facial scarring and the loss of the fingers on both hands which means he is unable to work and cannot easily write. According to the testimony, Kang and his mother argued constantly over money, especially since her job washing dishes at a restaurant came to an end. As her son and dependent, he was unable to claim benefits and wanted, the prosecution claims, to legally sever ties. When his mother refused, they allege that he lost his temper, killed her, and tried to make it look like an accident.

Nam-woo is unconvinced as is another juror whose 30 years as an embalmer tell him that the head wound was unlikely to have been caused by a hammer. Juror 6 is dismissed for speaking out in court, his exuberance held up as an example of teething problems in the jury system, but his words strike a chord with some of the other jurors who wonder if the smug expression on the forensic scientist is there to mask the fact that he didn’t really bother to investigate because there had already been a confession and all he needed to do was “confirm” the police’s findings. Time and again, the jurors accidentally uncover the failings of justice in a system geared towards efficiency. Kang was pushed to confess by police keen to meet their targets, the confession then became basis for deprioritising his case. Or as some of the legal minds put it, they got “sloppy” because there was no sense in devoting time and energy to a matter already closed.

The same thing happens in the jury room. The jurors are ordinary people. They have lives waiting for them. Nam-woo wants to file his paperwork for the business loan, another juror has a child to get back to, one is a salaryman with an angry boss on the phone. Everyone has a vested interest in getting this over with as quickly as possible so they can all go home, but they also take their responsibilities seriously – much more seriously than they were intended to. Korea is a conservative society in which it is natural to follow the guidance of the authorities and the collective will, and so it seems natural to everyone that you simply rubber-stamp whatever the judge says. Nam-woo is a bit different, he notices details and he asks awkward questions. “Just go with the flow” the other jurors urge him, “when in doubt follow their lead”, but he wants to do what feels right. The exasperated businessman orders him to fall in with the boss, in this case the judge, but crumbles when another juror asks for his own opinion. He doesn’t have one, because he’s corporate drone and he’s been conditioned to do whatever the boss says without really thinking about it.

In any case, the jury system itself is a bit of a sham. The jury’s opinion is not legally binding, the judge only has to take it under advisement and can overrule. Sympathetic judge Kim (Moon So-ri), defended in her appointment as “strong and resolute like a man”, is fighting her own battles in a male-dominated arena, hoping for a long overdue promotion following the successful handling of this high profile case she only got through lottery. She begins to notice things she might not have when it was just a formality of sentencing a man who had confessed, but she is under pressure to maintain control and authority while demonstrating the magnanimity of the state. The jurors’ deliberations expose their pettiness and snobbery, some taking against Kang just because he lives in the poor part of town, but also their keenness to ensure the law is fair and exists to protect and not to oppress. Genial and humorous, Juror 8 addresses a serious subject with a lightness of touch and a subtlety that gently exposes the shortcomings of its society while placing its faith in “the people” to make a compassionate choice in the face of a fierce pressure to conform.


Juror 8 screens in Chicago on Sept. 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 9 where director Hong Seung-wan will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A moderated by Korean cinema expert Darcy Paquet.

Original trailer (English subtitles)