All too often, there are some topics in life we tiptoe around. We either gloss over them, avoid them, or deny them altogether, and even more so when it presents uncomfortable or unfamiliar truths. So imagine when two of those themes come together.
The Silent Forest is a bold and disturbing look into the effects of systematic abuse, set in the unthinkable premise of a school for the hearing-impaired. Unafraid to jump headfirst into a tangled web of tragic manipulations, budding director Ko Chen-Nien creates a heartbreaking film that stays honest, and in doing so, illuminates with every jolt.
Hearing-impaired Chang Cheng (Liu Tzu Chuan) is a new transfer from a standard school, relieved that he now doesn’t have to face the stress of being different. He makes quick friends and finds interest in Bei Bei (Chen Yan Fei), a free-spirited girl who opens up to him quickly, often sharing randomly on topics from secret wifi spots to her love for Chinese opera. One thing she didn’t talk about, was how she was a victim of sexual assault – and by other students no less, to which Chang Cheng accidentally discovers one day.
The righteous boy finds ways to stop this travesty, but only uncovers a hierarchy of cover-ups and victims-turned-accomplices. The story then becomes one of how a young boy can hope to overturn a long-standing system, one which flourishes from the inaction or shamed dismissals from adults?
Our instinct for less-fortunate individuals, especially children, tends to be one of empathy, so The Silent Forest thrusts us in the position to ask, what happens when lesser-abled children do bad things? It’s a difficult equation to tackle, but Ko’s purpose is exactly so, to let this topic see light and conversation. The reason might have something to do with it the fact that the stories were based on actual cases that happened in Tainan in 2012 and Hualien in 2018.
The film, in all its brutal display, is clearly a call for society to not stay away from tough love, and to not overcompensate wrongs by glossing over with sympathy. Pay more attention to the victims, Ko seems to shout through her heartrending scenes. And in 2012’s case, the acts to 164 victims were resolved with the impeachment of 16, but with nary any other repercussions to speak of – a situation that needs more legal resolve to protect history from repeating itself.
Ko’s The Silent Forest shows a maturity that belies her short filmography. Rich psychological pieces are hard to execute within the confines of 108 minutes, but the cunning director shows flair with a successful melding of visuals, score, and script. The nature of the assault here is blunt yet layered, and goes from sexual to emotional – a tapestry that feels natural and believable. Her use of awkward framing and discordant soundtrack works well, and doesn’t fall into any cliche trappings.
Impressive too are the entire cast. While Liu Kuan-Ting as the sole teacher fighting to protect the children does a fine job, the young actors here are truly something else. There’s a development to each character here that is riveting to watch as truths come to light. From ringleader Xiao Guang’s (Kim Hyunbin) ‘mindless’ bullying to Bei Bei’s contrast of resilient vulnerability, each child actor performs at a level that makes the proceedings all that more horrific. And just when you think that’s all to the story, the director peels back the main story to reveal an even darker core.
Ko even manages to insert surrealistic scenes of local deities in the film, an artistic signal that sits suitably with the aspirations of a girl struggling to keep her sanity. Though rare, the juxtaposition is compelling to watch and sears us deeply as haunting reminders.
Small wonder then that the film garnered 8 nominations across multiple genres at the 57th Golden Horse Awards. The Silent Forest strikes the balance between commercial film-making and social messaging, and leaves us disturbed for the best of reasons, and hopefully enough for change to be finally effected.
A gut-wrenching but necessary story of the effects of abuse and impact on victims unheard. Don’t look away.
First published: www.movieXclusive.com