The world continues to watch in horror as Russia tyrannically lays siege to Ukraine, and perhaps no onlooker is paying closer attention to the global response to this assault than China, not only because of its own empire-building designs regarding Taiwan, but because of its ongoing cruelty toward groups within its own borders—most notably, the Muslim Uighur minority who are reportedly being sent to internment camps in Xinjiang, as well as raped and tortured, in the northwest regions of the country. That appalling conduct has drawn the ire of the United States, the United Nations and more, who’ve accused China of committing genocide and crimes against humanity. And as made plain by Unsilenced, such oppression is nothing new for the Communist nation.
Premiering on VOD later this month following a limited theatrical release, Leon Lee’s drama recounts the based-on-actual-events nightmare that befell Wang (Ting Wu), a Tsinghua University student working toward his PhD in 1999. Wang is an upbeat young man with a doting girlfriend named Li (He Tao) and two close friends in Xia (Chen Ying-Yu) and Jun (Shih Cheng-Hao), the latter of whom is introduced by Wang to Falun Gong, a religion involving five sets of slow, meditative exercises that are to be practiced daily and are based around the principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance. As Wang explains, Falun Gong is aimed at making the world a better place by putting a premium on honesty and positivity, and its optimistic ethos soon catches on throughout China, much to the dismay of the ruling Communist Party, here embodied by Secretary Yang (Tzu-Chiang Wang).
The Party is concerned that, should Falun Gong become more popular, it might overtake communism as the culture’s dominant movement. Thus, it sets out to demonize it as a dangerous threat to society. This begins with the arrest of some Falun Gong practitioners, which prompts Wang and company to visit the regional Party headquarters, where they mediate a non-violent protest. When they return home, however, they’re stunned to see news broadcasts portraying this gathering as a violent insurrection against the state, and supposed proof that Falun Gong is a menace. A convicted murderer’s subsequent confession that he was a Falun Gong adherent when he slaughtered his family only further tarnishes the religion, leading to its eventual criminalization and compelling Wang, Li, and Xia to fight back by hanging banners in support of their beliefs.
At the same time that Wang and his comrades are actively combatting this intolerance, American journalist Daniel Davis (True Blood’s Sam Trammell) arrives in China (following a 10-year absence) on assignment for the fictional The Chicago Post. He’s partnered with doting assistant Min (Anastasia Lin), who admires Daniel’s coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. At least initially, Daniel is determined to maintain a low and non-confrontational profile lest he court the wrath of the Party. Yet after fortuitously stumbling upon Wang, Li and Xia’s banner-raising act of rebellion—and both photographing their activities and interfering with the police’s pursuit of Wang, allowing him to escape—Daniel decides that he can’t sit idly by while the Party carries out a disinformation campaign aimed at deceiving its citizens about Falun Gong, whose members are being ostracized, rounded up, and tortured for their peaceful convictions.
Unsilenced is a story about an unjustly subjugated minority fighting back against the monstrous powers-that-be, which certainly lends it relevance at this fraught moment in time. What it lacks, however, is even a modicum of subtly. As written by Jocelyn Tennant, Ty Chan, and director Lee, the film relies on clunky exposition in its every scene, to the point that it often plays as an op-ed piece come to stilted life. “The suppression is only going to get worse,” says one character, to which another replies, “We have to make sure people know the truth.” Later, Wang boldly asserts, “One day, the lies will be seen for what they are,” thereby articulating the defiant attitude (and entire purpose) of this endeavor. Such dialogue is the norm throughout, with protagonists and antagonists alike stating things in a bald-faced fashion that decimates any opportunity for nuance, complexity or believability.
The same crudeness holds true for Unsilenced’s characters, all of whom boast a single dimension that never wavers during the course of this 107-minute affair. Wang, Li and Xia are innocent true-believers whose bedrock faith remains staunch no matter the obstacles and torment they face (including violent and, in one case, fatal torture). Daniel is a crusader who cares far more about bringing the truth to light than about the danger he’s placing himself in through his investigative efforts. And Secretary Yang is a stone-faced villain of the bluntest sort, his expressionless countenance radiating evil whether he’s meeting with his superiors or overseeing the beating and electrocution of his prisoners. He’d warrant the description “cartoonish” if he weren’t so devoid of personality.
As a result, Unsilenced proves a film whose intentions are pure and arguments are moving but whose methods for conveying both are clumsy beyond repair. Every step it takes is foreseeable from a mile away, and director Lee’s sporadic and emphatic use of slow-motion doesn’t alleviate the proceedings’ formal blandness. A few suspenseful sequences—the best of which has to do with a ruse designed to conceal an interview from prying Party eavesdroppers—keep things from turning completely somnambulant. By and large, though, the screenplay’s habit of explicitly voicing its points renders everything static and preachy, exacerbated by performances that fail to suggest anything lurking beneath these individuals’ noble or dastardly exteriors.
Still, as a straightforward and enraged exposé of China’s fondness for propagandistic deception and murderous oppression, Unsilenced has a topicality that helps it occasionally transcend its storytelling limitations. A coda in which the real-life Wang speaks about the hardships he endured at the hands of his Communist brethren, and the continuing mistreatment of religious groups, ethnic minorities and political dissidents in his homeland, further underscores the thorny reality upon which this creaky fictional film is founded. In doing so, it makes one suspect that director Lee might have been better off tackling this material via non-fiction means.