There can be no justice in silence, but when those in a position to help refuse to listen what can be done? Inspired by true events, Ko Chen-Nien’s The Silent Forest (無聲, Wúshēng) takes aim at cycles of abuse and systems of oppression in society at large through a thorough investigation of the culture of silence at a school for deaf children in which endemic bullying spreads like a virus emanating from a single trauma inflicted by a negligent authority. Yet this kind of violence cannot be fought with violence and there must be empathy too for the bully or the chain will never end as Ko’s ambivalent conclusion makes clear.
The film opens with a boy on the run, finally chasing down an old man and tackling him to the ground pummelling him until the police turn up and separate them. The policemen are frustrated. This is apparently the first time they’ve ever come into contact with a deaf person and have no idea how to communicate with him. Chang Cheng (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) tries to protest their injustice, but they continue to treat him as aggressor rather than victim even as he explains in writing that the old man had stolen his wallet (the old man claims he “found” it and was planning to hand it in). Finally a teacher from his new school, Mr. Wang (Liu Kuan-ting), turns up and interprets but it quickly becomes clear that he too is in a sense complicit, reporting that Cheng is sorry for what he did and grateful to the officers. In his view at least, the boy has his wallet back and there’s no harm done so why make a fuss? Just let it go and everyone goes home.
It’s this conflict between “silence” and justice that continues to prey upon Cheng’s mind after he starts at the school and becomes aware of the widespread culture of bullying witnessing a girl he likes being sexually abused by a gang of boys at the back of the school bus while the teacher sitting at the front does nothing. He tries to convince the girl, Beibei (Buffy Chen Yan-Fei), to tell one of the other teachers but she refuses, not wanting to “betray” her “friends”, insisting they were “just playing around”. Her reluctance however mainly stems from an intense fear of being sent away, that she might have to leave the school which is the only place she feels accepted. Both she and Cheng feel intensely othered in the hearing world, wary of being blamed for things that weren’t their fault as if their very existence were bothersome or “abnormal”. Even if it means putting up with extreme degradation, she would prefer it to the loneliness she felt before she found the school.
Yet the sense of social isolation is only one of the various oppressions to be found at the institution which ironically cultivates a culture of silence as regards the ongoing abuse as a means of preserving its reputation and therefore the “greater good” in providing the “safe space” from the social stigma the children face in the hearing world. Beibei points out that she was screaming, yet nobody could hear her. At first she tried to tell a teacher, but the teacher blamed it on her and implicitly on her disability insisting that the boys were “good kids” who were “just playing around” and didn’t understand she didn’t like it because she failed to communicate that she was uncomfortable. If they knew she was suffering they’d have stopped, the teacher insists before coldly walking away. Mr. Wang feels quite differently and wants to help but discovers that the culture of silence extends much deeper than he thought and the problem most likely cannot be solved through a few simple countermeasures but requires whole-scale systemic reform.
In fact, very little is done by the authorities leaving Chang Cheng with a hero complex believing that he has to be strong to beat the bad guys and save Beibei, but his righteous desire still leads him back towards complicity in order to protect her. The arch antagonist, Xiao Guang (Kim Hyun-Bin), bullies as a defence mechanism insisting that no one would dare bully him, manipulating others to do his bidding through the same mentality that one can either be a bully or a victim. Yet Xiao Guang is also a victim himself, a wounded damaged boy let down by a culture ruled by shame and unable to defend himself by any other means though apparently uniquely vulnerable to one particular aggressor. Only by addressing the root of his trauma can the cycle be brought to an end, but the concurrent cycles which he set in motion will in turn require their own resolution. A painful allegory, The Silent Forest boldly makes the case for speaking out but also admits that it doesn’t matter how loud you shout if no one is listening and without the desire for empathy and communication in all its forms the cycles will grow and repeat until the end of time.
Original trailer (English subtitles)