“Why we were punished? We are not the bad people!” a victim of sexual abuse and bullying “screams” with sign language in Chen-Nien KO’s “The Silent Forest.” In another scene, a girl who has been sexually abused for a long time begs those around her not to reveal the truth because she is afraid she will be ostracized and hated.

There’re already plenty of films depict systematic sexual abuse and violence – from “Spotlight” and “The Club” focus on church, to “Bombshell” focuses on news industry. Setting in a deaf special ed school, “The Silent Forest” is easy to think of “Silenced,” an excellent South Korean film happened in a similar set. But most of the times, “The Silent Forest” reminds me of Kitty Green’s game-changing “The Assistant” earlier this year, which radically breaks every rule and knowledge of filmmaking. In Green’s film, audiences and Julia Garner are bystanders. The violence of sexual inequality never shows in front of us, yet we indistinctly notice her boss or even the entire company culture are a bit odd, shrouding us in a tight, pinching pressure.

Unlike “The Assistant,” “The Silent Forest” brings us directly to the scene of the incident, visual impacts that display the gory violence right in front of the audiences, where the victims’ cries for help are not heard (literally), and no one is willing to listen to their complaints afterward. But before the violence is revealed, director KO sends audiences a series of hidden signs: sounds come from the door-closed classroom in the middle of the night, unusual atmosphere on the noisy school bus, and cliques among the students. The beginning of “The Silent Forest” quickly put the audiences in the center of storms, but we are in the typhoon eye at that moment and unaware of the upcoming destructions.

When the veil of violence is lifted, “The Silent Forest” shifts to an examination of the systematic violence structure. The entire school begins to feel wrong, the whole environment starts to try to cover up, ignore, and deny everything that is happening. You will clearly sense an invisible force that is crawling in the dark, as if you are in a chamber full of poison gas, while at the same time, you never stay away from its threat… That is “power.” There’s a power structure here that hurt victims again and again, and eventually, no one wants to open up and reveal the scars.

Opening with a powerful premise, “The Silent Forest” unfortunately is powerless to continue its ambitious scale. Watching the film is uncomfortable. It’s like a cage, surrounded by unbreakable walls, that force us to follow the rules. There is an inevitable force shaping the hierarchy, a toxic social root that we all can see but unable to speak up. Gradually, we stay silent.

GRADE: B

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  • Distributor: Catchplay (Opening in theaters October 15, 2020)
  • Production: Redbit Pictures
  • Director: Chen-Nien Ko

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