When the writer-director of Squid Game wrote and directed a movie based on a true story about abuse at a school for deaf children. Uh…I probably should have put content warnings more often in these write-ups. Well, here is one. Major content warning.
You know what? Screw it, I am spoiling the entire movie, as I cannot talk about this movie’s impact without talking about the ending.
It is a cold and foggy day as Kang In-ho drives to the town of Mujin. At the same time, a little boy shuffles onto some train tracks. The movie cuts back and forth to make it seem like In-ho is going to hit the boy. He doesn’t, though he does hit a deer right outside the town’s border, which cracks his windshield. As for the boy? The boy stares down a train, which knocks him dead and speeds past.
In-ho takes his car to a repair shop, only to find that he is far from the only one who did. Cursed fog. He asks the mechanic if there is a public bus to Ja-ae Academy for the Deaf. The mechanic says no, as it is rather remote. There is a taxi service that will cost maybe $42. In-ho decides to just drive the car to school with the busted windshield.
In-ho has barely started his car when BUMP. There is another car behind him. The woman gets out and accuses him of backing into her. He argues that he never even moved. She starts taking pictures of the damage and In-ho gets out to repeat his argument. Then…um…she starts sniffing him, saying that he will get into trouble someday. She calls over the mechanic, Mr. Lee, and accuses In-ho of being drunk. But…oops, it seems more like she was the one who had been drinking. It is only then that the woman apologizes and bows to In-ho. She claims that her insurance will cover it…until they all notice steam coming from the engine. She didn’t do that, did she?
The woman drives In-ho to the school. The passenger-side window is broken, so In-ho gets all of the cold air. The woman claims that someone smashed it while she was drinking with coworkers yesterday, probably someone who dislikes her working as someone who goes after domestic ab In-ho so doesn’t care and just wants to know how long until they get to the school. Eventually, they do get there. The woman hands In-ho a business card (Seo Yu-jin) and warns him against screwing her over on the estimate, as she is on very good terms with the cops around here.
In-ho enters the school and is greeted by a bunch of kids running down the stairs. There is also one girl helping another girl tie her shoelaces. In-ho smiles and signs hello to them, but the two run past him, trying to ignore him.
In-ho meets with headmaster Lee Gang-seok, who calls in the admin head. The two talk about their connection to Professor Gim. Inho was his student at university and Gang-seok was in the same class as Gim for several years. In walks admin head Lee Gang-bok and…oh…Inho is a little taken aback, but Gang-seok chuckles. I guess that Inho had not read up enough about the school to realize that the headmaster and the admin head were identical twins. Anyways, Gang-seok tells him that he can rest over the weekend and start next week. The admin head will help him with the details. Gang-bok is hesitant, and asks his brother about…that matter. Gang-seok pulls rank and points out that Professor Gim had recommended In-ho. Well…that is a bit of an awkward way to start a job.
Out in the hallway, Gang-bok holds up his hand. In-ho has no idea what he means, and Gang-bok looks at him like he is an idiot. Surely, someone from Seoul should know how things work. The gesture was in regards to the payment Im-ho has to give to the school to start working there. Is…that real? Is this what they mean by valuing education? Why would you want to start out your job in the hole and making back the money that they took from you? I guess that that makes it difficult to quit before a certain period of time. In-ho has actually not heard about this either. Is this legal?
In-ho calls up his mother that evening to ask for money to give to the school development fund. The school development fund? She has not heard of this either, but everyone has to contribute to it, apparently. And they need…$42,000?? And that is WITH the Professor Gim Discount? Yeah, In-ho’s mother is about as bewildered as I am at this whole thing. And how is she going to come up with that money?
School starts and In-ho…erm…bites into one of the apples that are at his desk. A couple of the students sign to each other, and the subtitles do not pick them up. That’s fine; I totally understand Korean Sign Language. I just choose not to tell you what they are saying. Anyways, the kids are painting pictures of that pile of apples. He goes over to one of the girls from the stairs earlier and tells her that she is very talented. Thanks to the subtitles for translating that. And also for translating it into Korean in the “subtitles off” version, which makes it difficult to screenshot without getting text. She looks at him the way that I am looking at these Korean subtitles. Go away. Additionally, while In-ho wasn’t looking, the other girl from the stairs took one of the apples to her desk and has been eating it.
A boy enters the class and In-ho scolds him for being late. The boy is looking down at the floor, however, so it is unlikely that he actually saw In-ho talking to him. So, In-ho goes over and…oh, what happened here?
Later, In-ho asks another teacher, Mr. Bak, about that student with the bruises, Jeon Min-su. Apparently, his brother had died in a train accident a few days ago, so he has not been himself. Oh, the boy from the start. In-ho says that all of the kids are a little odd. Mr. Bak tells him that he cannot treat the students as he would normal kids. Their disability renders them feeling incomplete, and unwilling to open up.
That evening, In-ho looks through Min-su’s school record. His father is…uh…”mentally r*****ed” and his mother is missing. He also looks up the record for Jin Yu-ri, one of the girls from the stairs. Grade three intellectual disability, mental age of eight, and a huge appetite. Then the other girl, Gim Yeon-du. Orphan.
In-ho locks up the building for the evening, and walks down the stairs, arguing with his mother over the phone about what to feed his daughter, Sol-i. Oh, but she did put the money for the “school development fund” in his bank account. As long as he remembers to get the neWHAT THE HELL WAS THAT NOISE??
Well, phone call over. In-ho slowly makes his way towards the sound, which seems like screaming. He gets to the girls’ bathroom, where the screaming and groaning is coming from. He asks if someone is inside. Erm…of course, there is someone in there. AND this is a school for the hearing impaired, the chances of the person in there hearing that is slim. However, the screaming and groaning stop. He asks if something happened, but now there is silence. In-ho is about to open the door when he is interrupted by the security guard, who scolds him for even thinking of going into the girls’ bathroom. He tells In-ho that the kids make strange loud sounds all the time when they are bored, and don’t care because they cannot hear it. Then he says that In-ho should leave as he is locking up the place. Erm…how about the kid who made the strange sounds?
If I didn’t know any better, then I would have assumed that Headmaster Lee Gang-seok is bribing a cop. They are discussing an…investigation…and unruly kids. Gang-seok says that he had told the kids so many times to not leave their rooms at night. Officer Jang jokes that there is no point in yelling at them as they cannot hear him.
In comes In-ho with a bag of cash. Uh oh. A cop? Don’t worry, says Gang-seok. School development fund are perfectly legal. Officer Jang says that he would contribute too if he earned more. Would he decline that bribe as well had he earned more? He then asks In-ho questions about…whatever, as Gang-seok takes the moneybag. He offers to show In-ho around the town for drinks and girls.
JESUS! Mr. Bak is giving Min-su a beating in the teachers’ office and all of the other teachers are just going on about their business like nothing is going on. You know. Just normal corporal punishment. In-ho comes in and…asks Mr. Bak what happened. After hitting Min-su one more time, Mr. Bak says that he had snuck out of the dormitory with two girls. Mr. Bak claims to have been in such distress because of it. The headmaster has Mr. Bak come to his office, so Mr. Bak creepily holds Min-su’s face, asking him to understand how he feels and requesting that they open up to each other more…is THAT what he meant by opening up? And can Min-su even read lips? Well, Mr. Bak leaves, leaving In-ho to look at Min-su’s bruised face. Is he going to ask Min-su for his side of the story? No. He is just going to continue watching as Min-su gets up and shuffles away. Just normal corporal punishment.
In-ho is going to his car when he sees Yu-ri sitting on her windowsill. He yells at her to get back inside so that she doesn’t fall, but of course, she cannot hear him. So, he runs back inside and up the stairs. He bursts into Yu-ri’s room, pulls her off of the window, and shoves her onto her bed.
Yu-ri backs into a corner. After shouting shouting shouting, In-ho remembers to sign to her. He apologizes for scaring her, but says that he worried about her. Yu-ri continues to make herself as small as possible. In-ho tries to patch things up by give her a doll that was under her bed, but she just grabs it. Well, nothing can be done, so In-ho gets up to leave. Yu-ri grabs onto his jacket.
Yu-ri takes In-ho down the hall and halfway down to the laundry room. She stares at the basement door for a few seconds before running back up, leaving In-ho there. He waits for a bit before going down there. He opens the door to the laundry room and finds dormitory superintendent Yun Ja-ae dunking Yeon-du’s head in the washing machine. He grabs Yeon-du and puts her behind him. He demands to know what Ja-ae is doing. Disciplining her student, she says. This is her domain and he should stay out of it. In-ho tells her that he has plenty of friends in Seoul who are prosecutors, and he threatens to have her thrown in jail. Yun is unmoved.
In-ho calls up Seo Yu-jin who initially assumes that he is calling about the repair fees. Nope. She goes to the hospital to see Yeon-du. She asks In-ho what he was doing while Yeon-du was getting abused. He is silent. Yu-jin then tells him to call Yeon-du’s parents, but he says that she is an orphan.
The Lee brothers have a talk with In-ho. Gang-seok assures In-ho that he has given Yun a stern warning, and that she wants to apologize to Yeon-du personally. In-ho tells them that Yeon-du is in the hospital, but will be discharged shortly. Gang-bok says that they will handle the discharge procedure. They ask him which hospital she is in, but the scene cuts before we know how he responded.
Drawing class. I think that they are in pairs and drawing portraits of each other. Min-su is just staring blankly at his blank paper. Yu-ri is doing the same. In-hoe goes over to Yu-ri and tells her that Yeon-du is absent because she is unwell. He says that Yu-ri can draw him instead and he will draw her. She shakes her head, saying that she has bruises and scars, but In-ho tells her not to worry. And it turns out that she likes the picture that he drew of her.
Enjoy that smile, because here comes the big stuff.
Yu-jin calls In-ho and asks to meet with him. She tells him that Yeon-du was almost raped by the headmaster. He tried to force himself on her and failed only because she was too young. In-ho chuckles and asks her if she is drunk. Then she shows him a piece of paper that she had used to converse with Yeon-du. Yeon-du said that she was not the only victim. And there were other perpetrators. The admin head was one as well. Bak Bo-hyeon sexually abused boys. Well, now In-ho is taking it seriously. He says that they should file a police report, but Yu-jin tells him that the cops just sent any kid who reported anything back to the school and then the kids got beaten in retaliation. She also mentions that Yun Ja-ae is the adopted daughter of the founder of the academy. Is…the place named after her? Either way, she is the sister of the headmaster and admin head. Jesus. A whole family of abusers. And…erm…Ja-ae is having sex with the headmaster. Oh dear. She assaulted Yeon-du for supposedly flirting with Gangseok. In-ho runs out.
The two return to Yeon-du’s room in the hospital and take her to the Mujin Human Rights Center. Yu-ri is there as well. With In-ho interpreting, Yu-jin interviews Yeon-du. Yeon-du tells them that she had been playing with Yu-ri on Thursday. When Yu-ri did not come back from the bathroom, Yeon-du went looking for her. She saw the headmaster, who waved at her to come over. He took her to his office where he was playing something on the TV. He started touching her, so she ran to the bathroom. But he found her and assaulted her. Her screams were what In-ho heard that day. And when he made his presence known, the headmaster put his hand over Yeon-du’s mouth.
Then it is Yu-ri’s turn to be interviewed. Her story is similar, except she never escaped from the office. She starts crying, so Seo hugs her. Yeon-du gets In-ho’s attention and tells him that she saw it. She tried to run when the headmaster noticed her, but he caught up to her and threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
In-ho is at home, thinking back to when he heard those screams and failed to save Yeon-du. Suddenly, the doorbell rings; his mother and daughter have shown up unannounced. It is wife’s memorial day, so it was kind of a given that she would come. His mother asks how the school is and he tells her not to ask. Thinking that it is just an issue of parochialism, his mother tells him to just bear it for a while. Professor Gim had told her that Headmaster Lee Gang-seok has many connections. A few teachers from the school were transferred to Seoul after getting into Gang-seok’s good books. In-ho tries to work himself up to tell her the truth, but she stops him. Assuming that he is talking about the bribes, of course she knows that that is bad. She got the money for it from the deposit for the house. In-ho is upset to hear that, but his mother reminds him that she and his wife (when she was alive) were the ones who supported him and raised Sol-i while he was wandering around with his drawing nonsense. The argument ends when Sol-i gets an asthma attack and the two get her inhaler. Things calm down and In-ho performs some memorial rites. His mother tells him that she and Sol-i have moved to a smaller house, which is fine for them. She say that he should not to think about whatever other things that may be on his mind and, instead, focus on Sol-i.
Yu-jin goes to the Education Department to request to dismiss the chairman of Ja-ae Academy. The representative is all too eager to pass on the case, and cheerfully pounces when Yu-jin notes that these incidents of abuse took place after class. Not their jurisdiction; this is City Hall’s problem. Anything in the dormitory is for the City Hall Social Welfare Department. Yu-jin says that she had already went to City Hall. City Hall sent her here, since the incidents took place in the school compound. The representative repeats that it is outside of their jurisdiction. Yu-jin stands up and asks who is in charge. The President of South Korea? The President of the United States?
Yu-jin goes to the police to complain to Officer Jang. Jang says that the headmaster is an elder of Mujin Church and has a high reputation in the city. He just received the governor’s award. Yu-jin gives him an envelope the written records and a DVD. Jang is uninterested, saying that he cannot just arrest someone based on what some deaf kids say. It has become more difficult to arrest people due to recent human rights issues. He says that she should know better than he about that. Well, I certainly don’t know. Yu-jin says that she will go to the prosecutor’s office. Fine, he says. They cannot investigate without orders from the prosecutor anyways.
Mr. Bak is beating Min-su in the headmaster’s office while one of the Lee brothers casually reads the papers. Mr. Bak asks Min-su to tell him where Yeon-du and Yu-ri are. Again, he is not signing, just speaking. When Min-su doesn’t respond, Mr. Bak beats him worse. After Mr. Bak grabs a golf club, one of the Lees tells him to find a quieter place to do his business. So, Mr. Bak takes Min-su outside to see In-ho standing outside the office. He had been standing there for a while, holding a potted plant as a gift of thanks for the headmaster. But Mr. Bak walks right past him, taking Min-su with him. The Lee brothers motion for In-ho to come into the office.
In-ho stands outside of the office for a while before turning around, jogging up to Mr. Bak, and smashing the pot over his head.
At this point, I would normally stop the synopsis and say something like now what? Instead, I will keep going and tell you what.
In-ho takes Min-su to the Human Rights Center. This time, there are people from Seoul TV Station there to cover the case. He asks if the perpetrators will really be punished if he says what happened. In-ho promises. With In-ho as an interpreter, the interviewer asks Min-su why his brother went to the railroad tracks. What happened to him before he died?
Min-su says that Mr. Bak asked him and his brother to go home with him. Min-su went, even though he didn’t want to, because he knew that he would get beaten if he refused. Mr. Bak and Mu-jin’s brother got naked and Mr. Bak bathed the boy in the tub. When Min-su showed discomfort, Mr. Bak locked him out of the bathroom and then beat him when he tried to get back in. His brother saw the beating.
When Min-su regained consciousness however long after that, Mr. Bak was asleep and his brother was gone. Min-su went outside to see the train tracks. He did not get to look for long before Mr. Bak pulled him back inside and raped him.
Oh, wow. This is really going out on national TV.
Officer Jang cannot ignore this anymore, and arrests Headmaster Lee. Gang-seok, of course, calls the TV report a fabrication and says that it wasn’t him. Jang just keeps walking him out of the school. Gang-bok is arrested too, as is Mr. Bak, of course.
Officer Jang drives the Lee brothers himself, alone. After hearing them complain about such mistreatment after all of the bribes that they have given him, he tells them that this has caused a huge commotion at the Prosecutor’s Office. So, he had to handle this properly or else he and his bosses would be finished. However, Officer Jang suggests that they find a lawyer who used to be a judge; ministerial grade at least, and preferably born in Mujin. Until they find one, they must not act indignant about their rights, just act ignorant and behave. Like those kids.
It is time for the trial and there are a whole lot of people outside the courthouse, including members of the Mujin Church with a man shouting into a bullhorn that the accusers are liars. Seo says that at least the kids cannot hear him.
As everyone sits down, Yu-jin asks her associate Yeong-hun about the defense lawyer. He says that Hwang U-sik is a talented lawyer in Mujin who was the best graduate of Seoul Law. He was once a ministerial judge and recently opened a law firm. This seems to be his first case. With privileges of former post, Hwang as a retired judge is expected to get favorable ruling on his first trial in practice. WHAT?? That is a real thing? Holy shit, it is. Wait. How does In-ho know about this, but Yu-jin doesn’t? Wouldn’t this have come up during her work? Well, whatever.
The accused enter the room and Gang-seok takes the stand. He gives a sob story about his father, Lee Jun-beom, and his commitment to helping the deaf and mute. One of the deaf adults in the seats starts signing and vocalizing. Others do as well. The movie doesn’t translate what they are saying. The judge orders them to be quiet, and Yu-jin notes that they cannot hear his order. She asks that the judge arrange for a sign-language interpreter for this trial. The judge orders her to leave the courtroom. The guards take her away and the judge says that anyone else will get the same treatment. He then lets Gang-seok continue his sob story.
The day is done. There is a little prayer circle outside of the courtroom. When it is done, Gang-seok’s wife leaves the circle, approaches In-ho, smacks him, and then spits in his face. Then she pulls on Yu-jin’s hair.
In-ho asks if he can stay at Yu-jin’s office. Why? He has been fired. Yu-jin assures him that he will get his job back once his former bosses are all imprisoned. In-ho says that she lives a simple life. She starts complaining about how difficult her life has been but then stops. She asks if In-ho regrets stepping into this. He takes a drink instead of answering.
Security guard Oh Jeong-sik takes the witness stand. And there is a sign language interpreter today. That’s nice. Anyways, Oh tells Mr. Hwang that he has been working at the school for five years. After some reputation puffery that the prosecutor objects to, Oh states that he has never seen an instance of either Lee call any children to the office after school. The interpreter interprets this, which riles up the deaf adults. The judge has to tell her to warn them that they will be kicked out if they make a fuss. Anyways, the incident at the bathroom. Oh says that In-ho had said something about a child’s voice in the bathroom and asked him to check it out. So, he went into check and saw nothing. In-ho is stonefaced.
The prosecutor has his turn. He asks Oh why he started working at the school when it pays less than the primary school where he used to work. Was it because he was caught stealing and was unemployed for three years? Hwang objects that this is unrelated, but the prosecutor insists that this is part of an arrangement among the school staff. So, he continues. Oh was introduced to the school by an associate and had to pay money to the school’s development fund. If the school closes down, then he will have no place to work.
Hwang questions a gynecologist, who says that it is unlikely that Yu-ri was sexually abused. Yu-jin notes that the gynecologist is the general secretary of the Mujin Girls’ High School Alumni, which is chaired by Gang-seok’s wife. Then the prosecutor shows the judge the doctor’s preliminary analysis report, meaning that she had written two reports. The prosecutor asks why she had changed a specific detail relating to sexual intercourse from being not recent to unlikely. Eventually, she says that it was probably due to something that happened at least five years ago. And at nine years of age, she would have been too young for sexual intercourse. Hwang interrupts, asking if such a thing is even possible. Is it even possible if the child doesn’t consent? This riles up the deaf adults again. The scene ends before we see if the judge has them thrown out.
In-ho and Su-jin take the kids to lunch. Min-su and Yeon-du are in no mood to eat, but Yu-ri goes into her bowl, getting sauce all over her face. This gets everyone to giggle. Hey, a smile.
The five go to the beach. Yeon-du opens up to In-ho a bit with a memory of her parents taking her to the beach before she went deaf…and before they died. Later, Yu-ri says that it would be great if In-ho were her father and Su-jin were her mother. Su-jin is…not exactly excited with the thought of matching with In-ho, and protests that there is nothing between them.
The prosecutor asks the defendants to say what they feel about Yu-ri. Gang-seok says that he thinks that he can remember her. The prosecutor asks him if he really cannot clearly remember the child who sued him for sexual abuse. Gang-bok speaks up for his brother, saying that Yu-ri has a mental disability. And Mr. Bak knows her, of course, as she is in his class. Then the prosecutor asks Yu-ri who had hurt her. She points to all three. How many times? Many times. It started in third grade and…oh, there are some details. Gang-bok, who is the main perpetrator in Yu-ri’s testimony, exclaims that she is a lunatic.
Later, Yeong-hun reports that the defense has offered a settlement that, if accepted, would render the testimony invalid. The parents of Min-su and Yu-ri could be pressured to, but Yeon-du is an orphan. So, what then?
Professor Gim asks to meet with In-ho…and attorney Hwang? Oh dear. Having recommended In-ho to the school, Professor Gim says that he is in an awkward position, and that it would hurt In-ho as well if the case were to drag on. Hwang shows In-ho a briefcase full of money for Yeon-du’s settlement, more than In-ho had paid to the school. Professor Gim has arranged a position for him at a school in Seoul. In-ho apologizes and gets up to leave. Hwang mentions Sol-I, noting that she is sick. In-ho goes to his car, and lashes out so hard that he breaks the driver side window.
It looks like the parents of Min-su and Yu-ri have been pressured to settle, so only Yeon-du remains. In-ho’s mother goes to the courthouse to scold him for prioritizing this kid over his own daughter. He responds that he had already failed Yeon-du before and he could not be confident that he would be a good father to Sol-I if he were to give up now.
Hwang questions Yeon-du. Hwang asks her how she could tell that the person who violated her was Headmaster Lee. Because she met him a few times at school, and it was him who dragged her into his office that night. So, Hwang has her look at the defendants and point to the Headmaster. Wait…hold on. Is his argument that either of his clients might be guilty of everything, so either of his clients could be innocent of everything and, thus, both must be acquitted? That is wild. The prosecutor objects, but is overruled. Yeon-du asks to take a closer look. She does the “you will be killed” hand-gesture to each of them and points to one. The judge notes that she picked correctly, but asks how. She says that, while neither of the Lees know sign language, Gang-seok did that gesture to her that night in the bathroom as well as any time she saw him violate Yu-ri. Gang-bok did not pick up on the significance, but Gang-seok did. The deaf adults applaud. Yeon-du sees In-ho do an applause sign.
Hwang asks Yeon-du about witnessing Yu-ri’s rape. He focuses on her having been drawn to the Headmaster’s office due to hearing faint music. How could she hear any music if she is deaf? Yeon-du insists that she didn’t lie. So, the court holds a test to determine whether Yeon-du can hear music. She is to close her eyes and raise her hand when she hears music. Hwang starts playing a song on stereo behind her. It takes about a minute after Hwang starts that Yeon-du raises her hand, but she slowly does. Then he stops the music and her hand slowly goes down. He starts again and her hand eventually goes up.
The judge accepts Yeon-du’s account. He tells the forensics team to submit a report on her suspect identification. The deaf adults are overjoyed. Gang-seok’s wife speedwalks out. In-ho, Min-su, and Yu-ri run up to Yeon-du for support.
In-ho’s mother approaches him and the kids. She hands him a bag of snacks, which Yu-ri zeros in on. While In-ho’s mother does not apologize for her earlier outburst, it is clear that she is humbled. She tells In-ho to come home when he is done.
Yu-jin goes to see Min-su’s family, only to see Ja-ae walking out. Ja-ae lords over the fact that she just got Min-su’s grandmother to sign a contract voiding his accusations. She mocks the grandmother for being so poor and without anyone to take care of her since her daughter-in-law ran away that she sold out her own grandsons.
Min-su has written down what he wants to say in court. He asks In-ho if he can bring what he wrote with him while testifying, as he is not sure that he can do as well as Yeon-du did. In-ho tells Min-su that his grandmother has forgiven Mr. Bak, which means that he can no longer testify. Min-su starts crying, and says that Mr. Bak killed his brother. How can Mr. Bak be forgiven when Min-su has not forgiven him? When Mr. Bak did not even apologize? He accuses In-ho of breaking his promise to have them punished. In-ho embraces him and apologizes over and over. Can Min-su even hear him?
Yeon-du wakes up In-ho and tells him that she had forgotten one thing. The thing that was playing on TV at the Headmaster’s office? She cannot really articulate it, but it is clear that it was a sex scene, if not a porn video. This sends In-ho and Yu-jin sneaking into the school. In-ho says that Gang-seok was arrested so quickly that he may not have had time to destroy it. Yu-jin worries that someone may have destroyed it for him, but In-ho doubts that he could have told anyone to do it. Certainly not his wife or even Ja-ae. They go snooping through the office and In-ho finds…a remote to the surveillance camera in the office, pointing right at him. Gang-seok was recording EVERYTHING!
In-ho and Yu-jin take a videorecording of Gang-seok raping Yu-ri to the prosecutor, the date of which is consistent with Yeon-du’s testimony. The law, however, is a strange thing. Yu-ri’s family had already settled. And, as she is now 13, that is enough for the case to be considered closed. However, she was not 13 at the time of the rape. So…does that mean that they can submit it as evidence? The final trial is just a few days away, and such evidence will not be able to be used in a retrial. The prosecutor tells them that he will present this directly to the judge. In-ho and Yu-jin look at each other; a little less certain than before.
Final trial day. The judge states that the three defendants are guilty of unpardonable criminal behavior that warrants severe punishment. However, he also says that the defendants have made great contributions to the community and have no previous criminal records. Additionally, two of the three accusers have had their testimony voided by family settlements. Thus, Mr. Bak is sentenced to eight months in prison and two years of probation. Gang-bok and Gang-seok are both sentenced to six months in prison and one year of probation. The defendants and their supporters are elated. Meanwhile, there is fury from the other side.
Hwang and his clients party at a hostess club. Hwang tells them that the prosecutor, having no other opportunities for promotion, leaped at his offer for a position at his firm in exchange for throwing the case.
In-ho bids a sad farewell to Yu-jin. She asks him to say goodbye to the kids before he goes, but he shakes his head. After he is gone, Yeon-du and Yu-ri tell Yu-jin that Min-su has gone out looking for Mr. Bak. She calls up In-ho, who goes looking for him. It is too late. Min-su finds Mr. Bak walking drunkenly on a railway track. He lets Mr. Bak get close enough to creep on him, and then stabs him. Mr. Bak is furious, and kicks Min-su over and over. Min-su stabs him again and tries to hold him on the tracks as a train approaches. In-ho gets there just in time to see the train…run over both of them.
Min-su’s funeral seems to be a small affair. In-ho is there. Yeon-du and Yu-ri are there. What about his grandmother?
Wait. No. This is no mere funeral. This is part of a protest. Outside of the tent where the funeral is being held are dozens and dozens of people in front of the court house. And Officer Jang is ordering them to disperse. It takes him a while to figure out that many of the protesters cannot hear him, no matter how loud his bullhorn gets.
The judge arrives in his car. Protesters converge on the car and police move in to pull them away. Yu-jin and Yeong-hun are among the few who get close enough to hit his car, but a few other manage to pelt it with stuff, mostly eggs.
At Jang’s order, a pair of water cannons open up on the protesters.
In the midst of this, In-ho emerges from the funeral tent, carrying Min-su’s portrait. He calls out to all of the apathetic onlookers. This child, he says, cannot hear or speak. His name is Min-su. In-ho repeats this over and over again as he gets pelted with water.
Eventually, a pair of cops hold him down and force him to let go of the portrait…which almost immediately get stepped on and broken.
Some time passes. Around Christmas, Yu-jin finally writes a letter to In-ho, who has long since left Mujin. She tells him that their appeal was rejected, primarily due to the settlements. Still, there are many people who have stepped in to help the children. Yu-ri has been happier due to getting psychological treatment and has been teaching Yu-jin sign language. Most importantly, though, the kids now say that they feel that they matter. And she says that she keeps fighting, not to change the world, but so that the world does not change her. She hopes that he is the same.
And that…is pretty much it.
Well…that was a movie. So, where do I start?
The movie is based on Gong Ji-young’s 2009 novel Dogani, or The Crucible. Yes, she titled it after the Arthur Miller play. Towards the end of that year, actor Gong Yoo received the book from his company commander during his mandatory military service, with the reasoning that it would suit him. Gong Yoo got so engaged by the story that he called up the chief of his agency to see if it was possible for them to turn it into a movie. And then, they made it, with Gong Yoo as Kang In-ho.
Hwang Dong-hyuk had started working on short films in 2000 and continued until he made his first film in 2007. This was his second feature film. I have seen three of his four directed films (as well as Squid Game) and they are wildly different. So, I feel that Hwang makes the type of thing that he wants to make the way that he wants to make it. I cannot say how much of the movie was taken straight from the book or what was Hwang’s own take. The book also centered on the teacher In-ho, but there is more regarding his backstory that the movie dropped. Also, I have heard that the description of abuse in the novel was even WORSE than in the movie. Other than that, I am not sure.
I get the impression that Hwang must have felt that he had a hit on his hands and, for better or worse, crafted the film that way. One somewhat contrarian review from a Korean movie website run by a Brit complained that the film was sloppy. Maybe. I am not a huge expert on the language of cinema, so maybe the movie was sloppy. But it did the trick. And that trick was mass accessibility with maximum impact. Now, for the mass accessibility, that comes with focusing on In-ho. In-ho (and Yu-jin to a lesser extent) is an audience surrogate, an adult audience surrogate for an adult audience. He takes the audience on an emotional journey that no other character could, especially not the kids.
Would it have been nice to see the kids interacting with each other independent from the adults? Maybe. Was it necessary to have that whole meet-cute between In-ho and Yu-jin at the mechanic? Maybe not. This “emotional journey of an audience surrogate” thing may make the movie seem more similar to movies like The Help, The Blind Side, and Green Book, all movies that I have not seen. The movie starts out making it seem like the audience surrogate will (eventually) save the day and romance the plucky activist woman. You know, the kind of movie that mass audiences like to see. However, this is not a feel-good reassuring crowd-pleaser. At the same time, it is not merely another tearjerker that South Korean audiences may also be used to.
The movie utilizes this mass appeal and accessibility to confront and question the audience. In-ho the everyman, tried to do everything right, but failed. He was too slow, too naïve. But even when finally got around to doing everything right, it was not enough. Not only did he fail, he let down the children whom he had sworn to protect. He failed, and broke. At the end, though, he is seen looking at a promotional image for Mujin, as Yu-jin talks of continuing the fight. Despite having lost, despite the system being designed to fail the children, despite only the smallest of victories being possible, will he return to fight? That is the question for In-ho. And a question to the audience. What would you do? What will you do? What will you do right now?
Hwang was not simply trying to make the audience watch a sad story or even an angry story. He was trying to jolt them out of complacency to show how their society is and to challenge them to defend it or change it. Some of it can be a bit much. The movie throws in the step-brother/step-sister incest reveal, but does nothing with it. I have seen suggestions that the portrayal of Mr. Bak carries the air of homophobia, given that he is the perpetrator whom In-ho assaults and the only one who dies. Is it? Maybe. Questions arose during that one episode of Squid Game.
And that brings me to…the depiction of child abuse. Now, again, I gather that the descriptions in the book are worse than in the movie. But the thing with books is that they don’t require actual people to portray the characters. Here, the kids are played by kids. And while the abuse presented in the movie is a little tamer than it originally was, it is still quite rough. Rough enough to get a reaction and response from the intended audience. I…uh…hope that it was ethically filmed, since there are children involved, but I am no expert on these things. At the same time, I do believe that “show, don’t tell” still applies here. Simply relying on the children’s testimony might sadden the audience, but this movie is not trying to make the audience sad, it is trying to make them outraged. And why? Well…
So…a couple of weeks ago, I kind of went back and forth about whether the movie that I was featuring had a potentially damaging presentation on the subject matter of abuse? Well, I have much less ambivalence about this movie. Not because it is necessarily more sensitive or careful in presenting the subject matter, but the actual real-life impact of the movie itself. Perhaps there were some in the audience who shed tears of catharsis. But most of them? They got fucking enraged! And nearly 5 million Koreans saw the movie…out of a nation of 51 million. That is a large percentage of the population to get angry. And why did they get so angry? Because, while the movie is based on a novel, the novel is based on a true story.
Oh, I didn’t mention that earlier, did I?
Gwangju Inhwa School for hearing-impaired students was founded in 1961. It started as the Jeonnam Deaf-Mute Welfare Center before becoming a junior high school and then incorporating a senior high school in 1993. In 2005, a newly appointed teacher told a human rights group about abuse at the school, and was subsequently fired. I am not sure exactly how the timeline went, but nine victims came forward (it is believed that there were more who did not out of fear or trauma), the police began an investigation after former students talked to a national TV station, and there was an eight-month sit-in by students and parents in front of the Gwangju city government and school board.
It was determined that six teachers, including the principal, molested or raped nine students between 2000 and 2003. And the courts…shrugged. Four received prison terms, but the statute of limitations for the crimes on the other two had expired, so they were freed. Two of those imprisoned were released within a year. The principal (who was the son of the school’s founder), was originally sentenced to five years, but that got reduced to probation and a $2,500 fine. Four of the six were reinstated in the school. As the families did not appeal the case after the first trial, so it was considered closed. And because it was only in 2010 that a law requiring victims of child abuse to make the complaint themselves in order to start prosecution was changed, no one could legally advocate for them. Human rights activists and victims criticized the legal action, but there was little media attention. But as has been shown, protests in Gwangju cannot be ignored forever.
One person who did notice was Gong Ji-young, who had been writing novels since 1988. She was born only a couple of years after the founding of this particular school and had wanted to be an orphanage director when she was a kid, though those two things were not related. Anyways, she used the case as the basis for The Crucible in 2009. And the movie was released two years later.
The movie was released on the 22nd of September 2011, just a few months after the 50th anniversary of the school’s founding. Within five days, 40,000 internet users signed a petition demanding a new investigation. The Gwangju Metropolitan Office of Education organized a team to inspect the school. At first, legal experts said that it was impossible to reopen a case that was closed with a court verdict. But, unlike with the previous few years, things changed quite quickly. While the police were unable to reinvestigate the crimes that had already gone to court, a special team went to investigate additional incidents of child abuse, as well as bribery and pressure of government agencies.
The 10-year-statute of limitation on sex-crimes meant that the investigators had to work quickly regarding earlier crimes. However, they did find older cases. One former student claimed that the son of the board’s chairman (who had been working at a different school in 2011) forced two girls to undress to draw nude paintings. A 71-year-old former teacher claimed that he had been beaten and forced to resign in 1968 after he had discovered that two children were starved to death and secretly buried in 1964. The school was founded in 1961 and that happened in 1964.
Perhaps to head off additional outrage if the investigation did not effectively conclude in time, the National Assembly passed a bill in October eliminating the statute of limitation for sex crimes against children under children and women with disabilities. Additionally, it increased the maximum penalty to life in prison. It was in this context that several teachers would plead guilty in various criminal cases. It was called the Dogani Law, named after the film. And the school closed in November, barely two months after the release of the movie.
Was that enough? Well, of course not. The movie helped to shut down this one school and punish convicted perpetrators. But human rights organizations back then argued that discrimination and abuse was rampant; that there should be a push to proactively protect people with disabilities and to promote their welfare in general. Preventative measures, not just punitive. I cannot say if other things have changed during the past 11 years to address those issues. Still, there are few movies that have actually changed laws for the right reasons. The only other one that I can think of right now is Days of Glory, which seemed to deliberately mimic elements of Saving Private Ryan to call attention to how France had used and then abandoned its colonial veterans of WWII. This movie, however, stands on its own and, sloppy or not, it is legitimately good.
This is…definitely not a movie just to throw on. But I do very much recommend it.
WTF ASIA 258: Shakuntala Devi (India: 2020, approx. 127 minutes)
WTF ASIA 259: Departures (Japan: 2008, approx. 131 minutes)