“Thank you, have a good day!”, are the opening lines of limping Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung) as he sells eggs in a marketplace with his mute sidekick Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in, Burning, 2018) – and indeed, the friendliness of his words is complemented by the all-round sunniness of writer/director Hong Eui-jeong feature debut Voice of Silence (Sorido Eopsi), where the sky is always blue and the colours of everything else brilliant. Yet as this pair of rural workers changes into different clothes for their second job (under a sign that reads, “Today’s honest sweat is tomorrow’s happiness”), we are about to discover that there is darkness, too, in this bright world, and that, for some, there may be no happy tomorrow.
Chang-bok and Tae-in moonlight as cleaners for a local crime syndicate. In an isolated warehouse, they hang up errant captives to be tortured by their suited ‘manager’ (Im Kang-sung), and then bury the bodies and scrub away any bloody mess left behind. (Rightly) frightened of their employers, and disengaged from the moral implications of what they are doing, these two keep their heads down and take their money, all too aware of their place and how precarious life is. “Whatever you do, do your best and be humble,” is Chang-bok’s motto. Yet when the manager insists that they temporarily look after an abductee for him, and is then himself killed before he can take the living prisoner off their hands, they find themselves in charge of the 11-year-old Cho-hee (Moon Seung-ah). Tae-in takes her to the backroad home where he lives with his much younger sister Moon-joo (Lee Ka-eun), while Chang-bok negotiates with the girl’s subcontracted kidnappers, who specialise in children, as to what to do with her next.
As we watch these two kind but compromised friends trying to navigate an ethical minefield, we are also witnessing the malign, inescapable power of marginalisation. For this helpless, hapless pair try to get by in a world that is indifferent to their lives, and happy to take advantage of them. The title Voice of Silence may refer most directly to Tae-in’s muteness, but here other characters too are, at least metaphorically, voiceless in their social exclusion. Also overlooked and unloved, Cho-hee fits right in at Tae-in’s home, while introducing a certain order amid all the neglect. Unable to risk leaving her there alone, Tae-in has to take Cho-hee with him on his body disposal jobs, leading to some very uncomfortable moments as she is left to play at murder scenes – but she, like her new guardians, is good at looking away and seeing any situation, however horrific, in the most positive light (in one scene, she traces flower petals in the dirt around drops of human blood). Tae-in may never speak, but he does make a choice – and the expression of that decision will have real-world repercussions for the futures of both Cho-hee and of Tae-in himself.
Yoo Ah-in’s deaf-mute kidnapper inevitably evokes Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002), while the emergent threat of child trafficking suggests Park Sun-joo’s Way Back Home (2019) – which also starred Yoo Jae-myung. Like the former, Voice Of Silence is sympathetic towards people driven to desperate action, while like the latter it has contempt for career criminals and professional exploiters – yet it also suggests that the demarcation between these different categories of wrongdoer is slippery. Chang-bok and Tae-in may be naïve and broadly well-intentioned, but they are hardly innocents, and their sweat has been far from honest. This is mostly a breezy affair, with plenty of comic moments, but in much the same way that acts of torture and murder, though certainly occurring, are kept off screen, there is the constant sense that the film’s more serious, tragic themes are ever-present, hitting harder precisely for hiding in the shadows beneath all those summery skies.
strap: Hong Eui-jeong’s feature debut conceals dark criminal themes beneath a sunny presentation, defying us to overlook its marginal characters.
© Anton Bitel