Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-Myung) and Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) sell eggs from the back of a truck in the country. It’s honest work but hardly pays the bills. So rather than go home when they change their clothes, they drive to an old, abandoned warehouse. Now donning ponchos, they spread plastic sheets below the only thing it can be hanging above: the body of a tied-up man, beaten and confused. If they’re being honest, this gig acting as set-up and clean-up crew for a local cartel doesn’t pay that much either. It’s consistent work, though, and the boss seems to like them enough to offer a couple side jobs. One such request has just been delivered.

They don’t like the task when asked and like it even less when they discover some details were left out. The boss merely stated that he wanted them to watch somebody for a couple days. The assumption is that it’s someone awaiting his turn as piñata; Chang-bok, a religious man, is wary about increasing his exposure to the complicity of these men’s heinous dealings. As it is he earnestly prays over their dead bodies once Tae-in buries them, believing himself to be a ferryman more than an accomplice to murder. Doing this, however, blurs that line, yet he doesn’t really have a choice. He can’t make the boss angry. Chang-bok therefore agrees with a smile before reaching his destination to discover the hostage is an 11-year-old girl.

If this unexpected development wasn’t enough, writer-director Hong Eui-Jeong adds another wrinkle: the boss handling this ransom isn’t long for this world. Young Cho-hee (Seung-ah Moon) soon becomes Chang-bok and Tae-in’s problem alone, and they neither know how to contact the girl’s parents for payment nor what to do if the family decides to let her go. Voice of Silence ultimately adds a child-trafficking subplot to complicate matters further as these two criminal-adjacent “blue-collar” employees find themselves forced into full-time criminal roles. And since Chang-bok is older, hobbled, and living in a populated part of town, babysitting duties fall to Tae-in—itself an untenable situation since he can barely raise his even younger sister (Ka-eun Lee’s Moon-ju) due to being mute.

It’s this unique take on a familiar crime plot that earned Hong’s script so much buzz a few years back at the Venice Biennale Collage-Cinema and Sundance Screenwriters Lab, before landing a production deal to turn it into her feature-length debut. We’re dealing with sympathetic characters traveling down the slippery slope of survival and their attempts to stay on the right side of God’s law while blatantly flaunting laws of the society in which they live. That means teaming up with the actual kidnappers (they have the experience to resolve the situation now that Chang-bok and Tae-in’s boss is out of the picture) and risking good standing with the girl from their willingness to pass her off to people far crueler.

Cho-hee thus tries to make the best of the situation. Compared to the men who took her, Chang-bok and Tae-in act like uncles. They feed her and protect and bring her to work (mostly because the latter can’t lock his sister up and thus can’t ensure his guest won’t run away). She even starts teaching Moon-ju manners and helps tidy up their little shack until this trio becomes a sort of makeshift family while they await a ransom reply. Cho-hee is very smart and sees that Tae-in is kind enough to do right by her as long as she endears herself to him so that he will refuse to let her be harmed. And Tae-in is so tired and beaten down, that it works better than expected.

Hong isn’t naïve, however. She understands the world in which she’s drawn these characters isn’t overflowing with happy endings. No matter how genial the bad guys are—Ha-seok Jo and Hyung-bae Seung’s kidnappers have a printed sheet of paper acting as “ransom notes for dummies” to pass along and steward their new accomplices forward—or how happy Cho-hee appears playing with Moon-ju, this is still a nightmarishly volatile scenario. Anything can go wrong, expected or unexpected, and it only takes one misstep to start a new chain of events that none can escape. That’s not even mentioning the elephant in the room: Tae-in’s lack of speech means he cannot verbally defend himself. Even if he takes Cho-hee home, her word is what determines his fate.

We’d like to think one act can absolve us of our guilt, but reality shows that such thinking is merely the pipedream of God-fearing men and women struggling with their impending mortality. Seung-ah Moon’s performance as Cho-hee proves the linchpin here because she never loses her skepticism. Every move she makes is calculated, even if those around her believe them to be organic. Be scared. Be kind. Help ease her captors’ stress so that they might make a mistake and perhaps let them trust her by staying put when such an opportunity does present itself. Hong allows this young girl to be autonomous in a way that gives her a semblance of control most characters like her lack. And who knows? Tae-in may be her best option.

For his part, Yoo Ah-in is great. Rumor has it that Hong asked him to watch videos of gorillas to inform his performance, it needing him to communicate physically through expression and gesture rather than language (Tae-in doesn’t know sign). Witnessing his evolution from worn complacency to prideful protector is therefore all him—with the help of a second-hand suit. Even so, this trajectory doesn’t guarantee happiness. Tae-in has always wanted more for himself than his lot in life as an orphan raised into this amoral career by Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-Myung is excellent too), but his examples of “more” come courtesy crime and thus brutal ends. Sometimes what you do matters more than who you are. Sometimes the difference is too small to matter.

Voice of Silence is playing the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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