The Silent Forest movie review: Powerful sexual abuse drama based on real events at a school in Taiwan

A still from The Silent Forest, directed by Ko Chen-nien. Buffy Chen Yan-fei, Kim Hyun-bin and Troy Liu Tzu-chuan star.
PHOTO: Cathay-Keris Films, MM2 Entertainment and Public Television Service Taiwan

3.5/5 stars

The systemic abuse of deaf students at a remote special needs school provides the focus for Ko Chen-nien’s The Silent Forest , which is nominated in eight categories at this year’s Golden Horse Awards , a film festival in Taiwan known as the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema.

Among the categories in which The Silent Forest is nominated are best new director, best original screenplay, best new performer for actress Buffy Chen Yan-fei, and best supporting actor for Korean-born Kim Hyun-bin, who respectively play the film’s central victim and antagonist.

It is Kim’s chillingly detached performance as school bully Xiao Gang, and especially his menacing signed refrain “Let’s play together”, that packs the most punch.

The film’s hard-hitting subject matter is inspired by real events at the National Tainan Special School, which prompted Taiwan’s deputy minister of education, Tsai Ching-hwa, to vow to improve reporting mechanisms relating to sexual harassment at Taiwan’s schools.

The relentless acts of sexual assault masterminded by Xiao Gang, and inflicted upon male and female students alike by his obedient minions, are discovered by new student Zhang Cheng (Troy Liu Tzu-chuan) soon after his arrival.

Troy Liu and Buffy Chen in a still from The Silent Forest.
PHOTO: Cathay-Keris Films, MM2 Entertainment and Public Television Service Taiwan

At first glance, his new school appears to be an idyllic haven for the hearing-impaired, run by warm and attentive teachers like Mr Wang (Liu Kuan-ting). On his first night, however, Zhang Cheng hears troubling noises coming from the communal bathrooms, and later he catches Bei Bei (Chen) being gang-raped on the school bus.

Zhang Cheng learns that Bei Bei and the other students are too frightened – of Xiao Gang and of upsetting their families – to complain. Bei Bei claims they were “only playing” and begs him to keep quiet. Only when he too becomes a victim does Zhang Cheng come forward, only to be met by a troubling response by the school principal (Yang Kuei-mei) and senior staff.

The Silent Forest lacks the unforgiving ferocity of Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s Ukrainian drama The Tribe, which told a similar story exclusively in sign language, without subtitles, dialogue or narration – but Ko’s efforts are commendable nonetheless.

Liu Kuan-ting in a still from The Silent Forest.
PHOTO: Cathay-Keris Films, MM2 Entertainment and Public Television Service Taiwan

Most impressive are her and co-writer Lin Pin-jun’s efforts to examine not simply the acts of abuse themselves, or even the desperate efforts of the school to cover them up, but the process that turns victims into predators, who in turn create new generations of abusers of their own.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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