Eui-jeong Hong’s rural crime drama, Voice of Silence, is a story about people on the margins of society. Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) is a withdrawn young man with a kid sister to care for. The two of them live in a cramped one-room home out in the countryside and get by on the small amount of money Tae-in can make from farming or from the less wholesome side-business run by his adoptive guardian/partner-in-crime, Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung). Like so many hapless souls before them, their pursuit of a better life quickly leads them to get in over their heads.
There’s a famous Ray Bradbury line that goes “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.” A lot of the people around Tae-in clearly think he’s just ignorant. He cannot — or at least does not — speak, and despite boasting the powerful frame of a young adult, he moves in a nervous, child-like fashion with his eyes pointed towards the floor. Mostly, Tae-in just allows the people around him to tell him what to do, shuffling along in a kind of dazed submission. When another character wakes him suddenly, he reflexively brings his arm up to protect himself. The reason for Tae-in’s silence then seems clear — he just doesn’t want to get hit any more.
When Tae-in and Chang-bok first appear, they’re wearing bright yellow protective gear while setting up their workspace out in the middle of nowhere. It all looks very Breaking Bad, and when the film suddenly reveals that their line of work involves hanging a gangster from the ceiling so that he can be interrogated, it displays the same knack for black comedy, moving between the mundane and the murderous with deadpan indifference.
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But it turns out that’s not where Voice of Silence really lives. The protagonists aren’t members of the mob, just country folk who make a few extra bucks by providing a remote place for the real gangsters to conduct their business and tidying up after they leave. They get drawn further into the underworld when a crossed wire sees them left in charge of a young girl who the mob were holding for ransom, but the story never takes on the pace and pressure of an urban crime film. For all the blood spilled and laws broken, Voice of Silence remains something much more bucolic.
Because Tae-in and Chang-bok live on the fringes of the criminal world, the violence itself is often reduced to a background detail. And even when it comes fully into frame, it usually isn’t played for shock value or morbid humour — it’s largely treated as life out on the margins, the same way farmers become immured to the bloodier side of raising livestock. Rather than using the violence itself as a punchline, Voice of Silence builds a comedy of manners out of Chang-bok and his colleagues’ sensibilities. They’re all for holding a child to ransom but offended by parents who’ll pay more for a son than a daughter. Chang-bok has no problem burying a dead gangster out in the countryside but, as a man of faith, he makes sure that the deceased is facing north and always says a prayer before the job is done.
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By drawing focus away from the action and towards the gentler drama happening around the edges, Voice of Silence finds a new story to tell. Yoo Ah-in’s wordless performance is especially endearing — he’s the rare actor who can exude charisma in a one-man show like #Alive and then also provide the sort of embodied, hunkered-down performance he does here. Every little gesture communicates an innocence buried under years of hurt and new-formed layers of suspicion. And the film never undermines his performance with an exposited backstory or manipulative flashbacks — it just lets Tae-in stand as he is.
The images of Tae-in and his makeshift family fooling around under the purpled rural skyline are not just gorgeous in pure aesthetic terms, but they communicate the sort of peacefulness in rural living that Leo Tolstoy chased throughout his tomes. And for all the funny lines and charming character work, Voice of Silence is steeped in melancholy because it’s clear that the fragile peace is going to shatter sooner or later.
Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.