Interview: Ko Chen-Nien 柯貞年, Director of ‘The Silent Forest’ 《無聲》
To say that Taiwanese director Ko Chen-Nien 柯貞年 made a splash with her debut feature The Silent Forest《無聲》would be an understatement.
First debuting at this year’s Taipei Film Festival, the intense drama has gone on to make a definitive statement in Taiwanese cinema, garnering eight nominations for this year’s Golden Horse Awards. More than its awards buzz, the film’s devastating portrait of the struggles sexual assault victims face has instigated societal change while reigniting important conversations surrounding the issues in Taiwan.
The Silent Forest would not be Ko’s first brush with film awards nor with the issue of school violence. In 2010, Ko made her mark on the scene with short film Horse with No Name《無名馬》, which was nominated at the Golden Harvest Awards before snagging the Best Short Feature Film prize at the following year’s Golden Horse Awards.
Sexual assault is a bold and sensitive topic that even the most seasoned directors may stumble with. Ko not only tackles the subject with grace, but she also does it almost exclusively through sign language. These, together with moving performances, outstanding cinematography and a bone-chilling soundtrack, make The Silent Forest an exceptional film in an already incredible year for Taiwanese cinema filled with back-to-back hits.
Sinema.SG had the privilege to speak with director Ko to ask about the challenges she faced directing the film, the urgent themes in The Silent Forest, and her future plans.
What compelled you to tackle such a difficult topic for your debut film?
I have always paid attention to films about social issues and I hope that The Silent Forest will be meaningful to society. Films should not just provide entertainment but also give something for everyone to reflect and think about.
Those heading in to watch films similar to The Silent Forest may initially see them as just a retelling of a news item. However, after watching the film, audiences might feel like they experienced the journey and issues together with the students, where the issues raised feel less fictionalised or edited and more immediate for the audience.
Was the story a difficult sell to investors?
In the beginning, I was approached by the Public Television Service to develop a film so it initially didn’t have a theatrical release in mind. However, while developing the script, a lot of my friends and seniors felt that the story is really meaningful and should be made for a theatrical release for a wide audience.
On the other hand, there were also definitely those who felt that although the story itself is good, they had questions due to the heavy and sensitive nature of the story before deciding whether to invest. Still, I felt that The Silent Forest wasn’t a big-scale production and nevertheless there were a lot of passionate investors for the film.
Most of the film is told through sign language, while it was also clear that there was a lot of care in translating the culture shared amongst the hearing-impaired. What was the research process behind the film like?
Although the film is based on real-life incidents, I first looked to understand the lives of the deaf and hearing-impaired. These included the composition of their families, deaf education, sign language, the assistive listening devices they use, and any other resources that are available to them. I found that their family compositions and backgrounds all influenced the way they approached learning. It was only after I understood their situations then I looked to approach the incidents depicted in The Silent Forest.
As most of the film is told through sign language, the actors spent about three months learning the language. On set, we also had both sign language and deaf person consultants to ensure the authenticity of the performances and dialogue.
Shooting the film was an interesting experience for me. In the past, we tend to rely on dialogue for performances but for The Silent Forest, we had to rely on the actors’ movements to bring across the emotions. I feel like it is a lot like dance. The actors had to rely on their entire body to bring across the emotions of the scenes. The entire experience was a big challenge for both the actors and me, but I think all of us gave our best for the film.
While the story is approached through a wide variety of genres, the film’s horror elements were what stood out to me the most. Talk us through why you decided to use horror to tell this story.
I have done a lot of experimentation and research on several genre elements due to my interest in them. I grew up watching horror films and loved mystery thrillers when I was young. I looked to approach The Silent Forest much like how films from other countries, such as in Korea, Japan and the Western world, approach their films about social issues. They too include a lot of genre elements looking to resonate with more audiences. Some audiences might head to the movies wanting a particular type of film before coming to understand the issues tackled that they might not have paid attention to beforehand.
That is why I approached The Silent Forest in a similar manner. I hope that the film will appeal to those interested in the issues raised, and also perhaps even for the younger crowd who may be looking to watch a thriller in the theatres.
What are the impacts you hope to make with The Silent Forest?
The Silent Forest looks to highlight several topics such as campus violence, abuse of authority, the lives of the deaf, and sexual assault. While working on the film, I think it’s easy to be angry and heartbroken after learning about these issues, while hoping that the movie will be able to give a voice to the children and be a form of revenge to those that have harmed them.
However, after collecting myself, I felt that anger should not be what this film looks to channel, especially when those children do not have any hatred for their schools or to the incidents itself. Being able to stay in the school with their friends is really important for them. Those are moments that they treasure a lot. As someone who isn’t hearing-impaired telling their stories, I feel that I shouldn’t be self-righteous and be the one to decide what is right or wrong.
As such, I looked to tell the story from a different perspective. For me, the film’s story isn’t about good and evil. The movie does not have an antagonist that has to be punished. Instead, everyone has each committed their own mistakes. Even those sitting in the theatres have a part in the situation as well.
That is why I hope that after watching the film, audiences would not feel that the issue has resolved. Instead, it should be the beginning. I hope the film will be a different kind of wake up call, and that it will contribute to making the world more empathetic.
The Silent Forest mainly stars fresh new actors. Was the casting of newcomers intentional?
At the beginning of casting for The Silent Forest, we decided that the film’s leads must be around the age of their characters while looking the part. Most films would cast actors in their twenties to play high school students or children. However, due to the sensitive issue of sexual assault, and with how the film looks to explore the boundaries between that and play, I felt that we had to bring across the characters’ age more with our casting choices.
I also tried to avoid casting actors who were more well-known to make the film’s story more immersive for the audience. If the actors were recognisable, it might be easier for the audience to feel that what is depicted is just a film. I was quite gratified that after the film’s premiere in Taiwan, a lot of people approached me to ask if hearing-impaired actors were cast for the film. I felt that is an affirmation that the actors really brought across their characters well.
Were there any difficulties directing the performances for The Silent Forest since most of it is through sign language?
Like I previously mentioned, making a film with performances in sign language was a very interesting experience, not just for the actors but for the crew as well. I feel that the crew was very bold in their approach to the film. The cinematographer had to account for the movement in sign language and how it must work together with the rhythm of the film.
For the editing team, performances in sign language also presented specific challenges in pacing and cuts. If we approached the edits as we would with traditional films with dialogue, the film might feel too dragged out. So for the edits to be able to bring across the culture of sign language without sacrificing the enjoyability and pace of the film was something that had to be experimented with.
For the actors, I feel that once they were familiar with the language, they were even more in tune with their characters. It forced the actors to internalise and express their characters’ emotions and thoughts, and to find ways to express them without outwardly voicing them out. Overall, I thought it was a wonderful experience for everyone.
What is next for you?
For now, I am looking to film two television series. One of them is based on an international IP, while the other is an original story. Both of which will similarly look to incorporate different genre elements. I feel that making a film and a television series each present completely different challenges so it is something that I am very looking forward to.
Looking towards the future, I am still interested in creating films that are based on societal issues or real-life cases so it will be an area that I will be continuing to explore.
The Silent Forest has garnered eight nominations at this year’s Golden Horse Awards, including for Best New Director and Best Original Screenplay. Catch the awards ceremony this Saturday, 21 November, at 7pm.
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