The Silent Forest
Taiwan Film Festival in Australia (streaming online)
Rating: Four stars (out of five)
In The Silent Forest, director Ko Chen-Nien makes a defiant debut, retelling the real-life tragedy of a sexual abuse scandal that involved over 100 students at a school for the hearing impaired in the Taiwanese city of Tainan.
The story begins with a young hearing-impaired boy, Chang Cheng (Troy Liu), starting his first day at a new school where students communicate using sign language. What should have been an idyllic day turns into a nightmare as Chang witnesses a shocking act of abuse against his crush Beibei (Chen Yan-Fei) at the back of the school bus. What emerges as the film progresses is an unveiling of systemic abuse and cover-ups that plagues every corner of the institution.
Firstly, it must be pointed out that the scenes of abuse in this film are more upfront than expected. Although it is never as visceral as Jennifer Kent's 2018 The Nightingale, they are extremely shocking and uncomfortable to watch, as they rightly should be. (Audiences for whom this may be a trigger are advised not to view this film.)
With that said, The Silent Forest is a brilliant drama that's both thematically and stylistically daring. The cinematography by Chen Chi-Wen is precise, playing with chiaroscuro and employing soft-lighting to create an unsettling, dream-like aesthetic in the night-time scenes. It recalls the visual style of François Ozon's thrillers, however under the deft hand of director Ko, it never feels exploitative and treats the real-life victims' stories with respect.
The way Beibei then rationalises her abuse and maintains normality in a hostile environment is heartbreaking to watch.
This film is a rumination on the nature of abuse, and it asks more questions than it answers. It is a startlingly realistic film that shows the line between victim and abuser is not only blurry, but sometimes non-existent. The ending – the haunting final shot in particular – is bound to ignite intense discussion.
Like the groundbreaking 2014 film The Tribe, which was told entirely in Ukrainian sign language, The Silent Forest is told mostly using Taiwanese sign language (the minimal spoken dialogue is in Mandarin and Hokkien). The film is a masterclass in performance, with Troy Liu and Chen Yan-Fei utilising body language and facial expressions expertly to convey emotion.
Liu plays Chang with a degree of naivety in the early part of the film, but it slowly shifts into something darker as he becomes both victim and victimiser. Chen, who won the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival award for Best New Performer, imbues Beibei with a sense of innocence that immediately draws you to the character. The way Beibei then rationalises her abuse and maintains normality in a hostile environment is heartbreaking to watch.
Other standout performances include Korean actor Kim Hyunbin as Xiao Guang, the leader of the group of "bullies" who brutally assault students on campus. His portrayal is nuanced and complex, as layers of his character are gradually revealed as the enormity of the school's institutional rot is exposed. Liu Kuan-Ting, who played a gangster in last year's excellent A Sun, shows his dynamic range here in his performance as Mr Wang, the morally upright teacher who tries his best to help his students.
The absence of spoken dialogue, and the fact that most characters are hearing impaired, allows sound design to used differently, to both build atmosphere and as an intricate storytelling tool. At times, horrifying sounds in the background reveal information to the audience while concealing it from characters, and other times the soundscape puts us into the headspace of characters. It is used masterfully, and rightfully won the Golden Horse award for Best Sound Design.
All in all, The Silent Forest is a formidable first feature from director Ko Chen-Nien that should re-ignite difficult debates around the issue of sexual abuse in education, not only in Taiwan, but wherever the film is shown. This is tight, thrilling and emotional storytelling. It is an incredibly disturbing viewing experience but if you can stomach the "based on true events" material, it is definitely worth a watch.