The Wailing: A Masterful Mystery

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In an interview with Screen Daily when his horror film The Wailing went to Cannes, director Na Hong-jin (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea) mentioned how he loved and was influenced by such classic horror films as The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, adding:

They’re like textbooks. But there hasn’t been much that’s been impressive since then. It seemed mostly like repetition. It’s necessary to go back to them, but I wanted to put an Eastern and Korean twist on the canon.

Indeed. As you follow the unsettling events in The Wailing, it’s difficult not to see it as Na’s conscious effort to stay away from the cheap-scare tactics so often employed these days in jump-scare horror movies. It’s a piece of masterful horror that blends the spiritual, the religious and the psychological in a quiet, confident manner.

But despite those influences the director mentioned, what The Wailing is closest to in terms of its basic conceit, is Rashomon.

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Throughout the film, The Wailing‘s lead character, a rotund cop named Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), constantly hears stories from other people, mostly about the strange Japanese man who has come to their mountain district of Gokseong, and who may or may not be an evil spirit. The film is really a story about stories, and your perspective is always being challenged, regardless who tells you the story.

In trying to solve a series of gruesome killings in the village that were committed under bizarre circumstances, Jong-goo ends up unwittingly having his daughter involved, her life threatened, as he discovers a dangerous occult presence in the village. In the end, he is faced with a life-or-death choice as he is presented with different takes on a single event.

I’m obviously trying to avoid any spoilers here, but ultimately, the film is about a man’s quest for the truth. It’s no wonder then, that it opens with a verse from the Bible where Christ tries to convince his followers of his resurrection by showing them physical evidence of his Crucifixion. There is no quest for truth more pertinent than when it involves religion.

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The film is peppered with religious iconography and references, whether it’s Christian or traditional occult, be it a “plague” raining down on a shaman’s car, or a man holding out his hand to show a hole in his palm, or a rooster crowing three times, or Buddhist statues, or animal sacrifices.

According to Na, the district in the film, Gokseong (which is the Korean title of the film), was his grandmother’s hometown where he spent most of his growing-up years. It was also where Catholics who were persecuted in the north, ran away to. Thus, the heavy Christian/religious presence in the district, and the people’s strong connection to the spiritual and supernatural world. Add to that the fact that in ancient times, Gokseong was also invaded by the Japanese. It’s no wonder then, that Na uses a Japanese character as an unknowable threat to the village in the film. It punctuates the film with the residual effects of invasion hysteria, post-occupation uneasiness and paranoia, while acknowledging that these things sometimes colour opinions and wrongful suspicions.

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While the film starts off with balanced doses of humour and mystery, it gradually gets darker and moodier, especially when a shaman from the city, Il-gwang (played by the charismatic Hwang Jung-min), turns up to exorcise Jong-goo’s young daughter. From thereon, all humour bleeds out of the picture and a chillingly sinister atmosphere takes over.

But it’s not an easy film to digest. First off, the film is a puzzle of sorts, with elliptical choices and subtle hints strewn all over it. Secondly, because of that, it invites the viewer to actively participate in unraveling the mystery at the heart of its story. This makes it a truly interactive and immersive experience. For myself, I ended up discussing the film with a friend over three days and three nights, after which our appreciation for the film deepened, as did our understanding of the various nuts and bolts of the story.

These days, you don’t get many mainstream directors who prod and prompt their audience instead of spoonfeeding them. The incredibly cinematic visual exposition of The Wailing demands that the audience pay close attention to every detail, and to make the connection between the various clues and elements themselves. What is the significance of that strange flower plant that appears all over the village, for instance? What does the idea and visual of “fishing” imply?

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Unlike most other films that tease you with morsels of information, The Wailing‘s deliberate obliqueness does not frustrate but functions to fascinate. This is mainly because the ambiguities have direct relation to the story’s themes that deal with faith and the unknowable, and how man’s need for visual evidence often blinds him from discovering the truth. Yet, if you think about it, this is a contradiction of what cinema is, a visual art form, where we seek visual evidence to understand a story.

Ultimately, The Wailing isn’t really concerned with demons and ghosts, or with who is evil and who is good. It’s about the human tragedy of paranoia and distrust. So the film rightfully doesn’t give us easy answers, especially as to who the villain is and who the saviour. It embodies the very mystery that it presents. That’s not an easy trick to pull off.

Like Rashomon, there are many sides to a truth, depending on who you hear it from, or where your faith lies. The film as a puzzle doesn’t provide a concrete solution, but offers you enough clues to come up with your own answers.

That is what makes The Wailing an endlessly fascinating film and one of the best horror films of the last decade or so, definitely one of the smartest around.

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