Film Review: ‘The Silent Forest’ Is a Terrifyingly Brilliant Masterclass in Storytelling5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Hearing-impaired teenager Chang Cheng transfers to a school for children with special needs. However, the world of the hearing-impaired doesn’t seem quiet at all. When Chang witnesses the “game” taking place in the last row on the school bus, his excitement about blending into a new environment immediately turns into fear.
Director: Ko Chen-Nien
Cast: Liu Tzu-Chuan, Chen Yan-Fei, Liu Kuan-Ting, Kim Hyunbin
Runtime: 108 minutes
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So many times while watching The Silent Forest《無聲》I found my hand on my forehead in utter disbelief and my mouth covered in genuine terror. To say that the multiple Golden Horse Awards nominee tackles the issue of sexual assault would not be enough; The Silent Forest veraciously lunges straight for the jugular. The film will wrench out every ounce of emotion in its devastating portrait of sexual assault victims, and of the revolting idleness of those unwilling to step in to help.
The Silent Forest follows newly-transferred student Chang Cheng (Liu Tzu-Chuan) as he adjusts to his new environment in a school for the hearing-impaired. Initially, he finds solitude amongst his classmates, having been shunned by the outside world because of his disability. He even finds himself infatuated with fellow classmate Bei Bei (Chen Yan-fei). Things take a horrifying turn when he finds out that the senior students, led by Xiao Guang (Kim Hyunbin), have been sexually abusing their juniors, including Bei Bei, for years under the pretence of ‘just playing a game’.
With the film based on cases of sexual assault in a hearing-impaired school in Tainan, most of the conversations in The Silent Forest is conveyed through sign language. What is audible is mainly from the background. As Chang Cheng uncovers the depth of sexual abuse amongst the student body, the film builds on this silence to create a nerve-wracking atmosphere.
Shadowed alleyways, dilapidated classrooms, and even the back of a school bus – all sites of assaults – are painted with an unsettling hue, with the tension further pincered by the film’s hair-raising musical stings. Although these result in a stylistic approach that would exceed most horror films, it would be unfair to assign just one genre label to The Silent Forest.
The trigger warnings that may be attached to the film should not be dismissed. A lot is done to accentuate how most of the film’s characters are teenagers, with Bei Bei’s youthful purity being a key factor to the story, as well as the dismal of the perpetrators’ behaviour as just innocent horseplay. The depictions of sexual assault in The Silent Forest are terrifying and even triggering. Yet, neither these disquieting scenes nor Bei Bei’s innocence felt like they were exploited. The film demonstrates an exceptional depth of control, bringing out only what is absolutely necessary for its message to sear in the minds of its audience.
Equally masterful is its examination of the trauma of sexual assault victims and the reasons why so many remain silent about their sufferings. There is not one single wasted motion throughout The Silent Forest, using its entire runtime to succinctly and precisely translate their pain, struggles, and hopes.
And remember, all this is mainly brought to screen through sign language by relatively fresh faces. The Silent Forest and its cast do a spectacular job in depicting the hearing-impaired, nailing the sense of community shared between them as well as the subtle details in behaviour. Their disability does make sexual assault cases even more egregious but never were the victims targets because of it. The Silent Forest and its characters never hide the limitations presented by their disability, and it is exactly their struggle for the truth despite these which makes the film so affecting and powerful.
Every single actor in the film pulls their weight. Chen delivers an absolutely shattering performance as Bei Bei, tugging at the heartstrings with her sensitive demeanour and her immeasurable inner weight. Chang Cheng carries the responsibility of bringing to screen the anger, frustration and disbelief of the audience to the events – a role that Liu does an excellent job with. Equally compelling is Chang Cheng and Bei Bei’s well-meaning teacher played by Liu Kuan-Ting, who stands out throughout the film as an unwavering moral compass.
Another of the film’s many strengths is with how the drama is made so compelling with complex characters that grow and evolve from their responses to the environment. No one brings out this strength better than the character of Xiao Guang, with a performance by Kim that is truly deserving of a Golden Horse Awards nod.
The Silent Forest is a masterclass in storytelling, all told through incredible performances while immaculately blending genres to forge an absolute firebrand. Its emotional depth has definitely contributed to its box office success and awards buzz but much more important than that, it has incited and instigated societal change – which, in my opinion, is the hallmark of any art. The Silent Forest should not be missed.
The Silent Forest is now screening in theatres islandwide. In the meantime, catch the film’s trailer below:
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