by Brandon Thomas
Based on real events, Unsilenced follows a group of students as they navigate the political turmoil around the 1999 Chinese ban of religious movement Falun Gong.
As the crackdown against Falun Gong practitioners intensifies, the students find themselves in the crosshairs of the Chinese government through their refusal to adhere to the ban. American journalist Daniel Davis (Sam Trammell of True Blood) begins to dig into the torture and suppression surrounding the Falun Gong ban when the students go into hiding. When their paths meet, both the students and Daniel have to make a choice about how important the truth is.
Hard-hitting political movies aren’t a new phenomenon here in America. From All the President’s Men to JFK and Selma, movies depicting real-life political events and movements are a part of our cinematic DNA. The same can’t be said for places such as China, which is now one of the top movie-going countries in the world. Films challenging China’s political history never come out of the country itself, and even those foreign-made films face increased scrutiny and push-back from the Communist nation.
Despite the potential “touchiness” of the subject matter, director Leon Lee has made a film that is almost devoid of subtlety. The direct messaging feels purposeful, as Lee crafts a film much more interested in delivering a message than telling a strong story. The story still resonates, but through a guise of a TV movie-of-the-week with on-the-nose performances and flat photography.
Even with the narrative clumsiness, Unsilenced manages to have some thrilling moments. The segments featuring Trammell as the American reporter work the best as they threaten to take the story into more of a political thriller than a drama. The shoe-horning in of a Western white guy isn’t the best of looks these days, but it’s interesting how Lee’s focus as a director narrows during these scenes.
Although Unsilenced suffers somewhat from that lack of subtlety, the message being conveyed comes through a lens of genuine caring. Lee’s entire filmmaking career to this point has focused on human rights. While most of that work has been through documentary film, Lee’s few segues into narrative features have kept the spotlight on the issues that are important to him as an artist. Even if the final product isn’t a home run, it’s impressive to see a filmmaker tackle an issue over and over with the same fiery passion.