I wrote a piece on Nymphomaniac (2014, Director’s Cut, Vol. I and II) and on what it means to be “A Radical, Vulnerable and Agentic Body.”
Na Hong-jin’s Definition of Evil: The Inexplicable
The Wailing (2016) aka 곡성 is Na Hong-jin’s third feature film starring the excellent Kwak Do-won, who Na has collaborated with in The Yellow Sea (2010). Na is probably most well-known for his feature debut The Chaser (2008) with Ha Jung-woo playing the terrifying serial killer, and Kim Yoon-seok playing the corrupt detective-turned-pimp trying to solve these unexplainable crimes.
With The Wailing, Na continues his theme of inexplicable evils committed by a being that appears to be fully human but from up close contains no sympathetic soul. In The Chaser, Ha Jung-woo’s character is just plainly a murderer without any rhyme or reason; in The Yellow Sea, Ha Jung-woo’s character is put on an assassination mission without knowing the reasons for why he must commit this crime, and when he finally learns the reason, he is left completely speechless by the superficiality of the incitement, thus portraying–again–evil actions without a justifiable cause. Na brings this concept into the realm of the superego by putting the face and body of the Devil himself onto our screen with The Wailing.
Freud (1919) defines the uncanny as something that is preferably concealed but is later revealed to our reaction of horror, fright, terror, disgust, etc.; the uncanny refers to what is familiar to us therefore familial; for instance, a daughter, who is completely knowable to the parents who produced and gave birth to her, love and care for her, belongs in the realm of uncanny because she is familiar (heimlich); the flipside to heimlich is unheimlich which is the stranger or the ugliness that is preferably concealed; this is when the daughter we know and love suddenly changes because she is possessed by the unknowable. The uncanny may also refer to a the “happy genius,” otherwise known as the guardian spirit of a dwelling–the possessor. Traces of heimlich and unheimlich which make up the constitution of the uncanny is found in Gokseong–the small village in Jeolla Province where the film is set (also the title of the film in hangeul).
At the crack of dawn on a rainy day, officer Jeon Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) gets a phone call from the station alerting him of a murder case. When he arrives at the scene of the crime, he finds that a family’s been stabbed to death by a young man who sits on the edge of the maroo, skin covered in boils and the blood of his victims, with eyes glazed over as though in a trance.
Boils on the skin, mental derangement and subsequent serial killings of those around him/her are symptoms found among several murderers (victims) throughout the village. The noticeable pattern along with the rumors going about town that the suspect who is spreading this disease (or possession) is a strange Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who lives deep in the mountains, eats deer carcass raw, rapes women and curses people. These rumors start to pile up inside officer Jeon’s imaginary.
One day when Jeon and his partner break into the fisherman’s house, they find a small dwelling densely packed with photographs of the victims, candles, shaman ritual rope, and personal belongings of the villagers such as shoes and clothes. The last straw for Jeon is when he sees symptoms appear in his young daughter Hyo-jin–played by the very impressive Kim Hwan-hee–who appears to be about 10 or 11 years old. It begins with her erratic behavior; the young girl who was once so sweet to her old man suddenly throws fits; she screams and curses at her father leaving her entire family aghast but frozen in fear at the sight indicating everyone’s helplessness. Doctors have no answers. The police are useless. A spiritual intervention is the only answer for them.
In part two of the film, the child’s grandmother invites a well-known shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min, The Unjust (2010), Veteran (2015)) who is apparently quite expensive but rumored to be the best there is from Seoul. Jeon tells Il-gwang of the situation. Jeon explains all of this to his trusty Korean shaman who assures him that he will take care of the matter–put it to rest. Il-gwang tells Jeon that what’s plaguing the town is not a person but a ghost. Jeon asks how a person he’s seen in the flesh and blood can be a ghost, and this is the difficult question he struggles with for the rest of the film, along with the more obvious questions, “Why me? Why my daughter? Why my hometown?”
Freud’s uncanny is a duality–a yin and yang, for instance, which may coexist. Yin and yang are prevalent themes in throughout the film. For instance, during his rituals, Il-gwang offers up white chickens and goats to the spirits whereas the Japanese stranger kills black chickens and goats to cast his curse.
Another spiritual force haunts the town, representing yang, and it is played by the wonderful Chun Woo-hee ((Sunny (2011) and Han Gongju (2014)) who is referred to by the film’s credits simply as “mu-myeong,” which translates into “no name.” Mu-myeong is the first witness that officer Jeon encounters at the second murder scene where a deranged woman killed her entire family then burned the house down before hanging herself. At the crime scene, Mu-myeong tells officer Jeon that the old Japanese man is a ghost who is possessing these people and driving them to commit these murders.
What’s interesting to note is how in these scenarios one person gets possessed then murders their own family members. The killings aren’t random. They are specifically towards their own flesh and blood or clan members. What does that say about the ghost’s intentions? What does that say about the ghost himself who is a spirit but in flesh and blood?
This ghost also appears to have a hobby for photography. He takes photographs of his victims in 35mm with a Minolta camera, which he seems to develop on his own at his creepy house. It nudges against the superstition that existed or still exists in tribal countries that photographs steal a person’s soul. The haunting theme that emanates from the Japanese stranger is that he is not a living person but a ghost–a dead man walking.
At Jeon’s question as to how a ghost could possibly have a body, Il-gwang tells him that when a ghost captures enough bodies for his own, he can eventually become a person albeit not a living one. This image of a strange man staring who appears to be dead or a strange man trying to enter haunts at least several people’s dreams.
Horror Genre Mashup
The epidemic throughout the town is most certainly an homage to the zombie genre. With that said, the film is not a zombie film necessarily. In fact, at one point in the movie, when a team of men who are out to hunt down and kill the Japanese man-ghost, they encounter a zombie, who was evidently brought back to life although he was initially dead just like the other victims, covered in boils and rotting away like a victim of leprosy.
At the scene of the zombie attack, the film reaches a point of satiric comedy. The men who’ve never seen a zombie before don’t know how to react to it, nor how to treat it. At first they try to help him and speak to him as if he’s a regular person, but when the zombie starts to attack the party by biting them, the men go around taking turns both beating the zombie and getting attacked himself. At least two men can’t bear the sight of another man whacking this apparently ill person with a stick and tries to stop the attack. Big mistake. The zombie then attacks the good Samaritan. It’s a likely metaphor for Korea’s clumsiness at the introduction to any Western concept. The zombie isn’t found in Korean folklore. (The closest to a zombie that Koreans might know from Chinese legends is the Jiangshi or gangshi in Korean which has its own set of cultural rules/references.)
In a way, there is perhaps almost every element of a horror film ever made in this movie; Edgar Allan Poe-inspired cats and crows, rabid black dogs, dead deer carcasses; the possession of a little girl has strong connotations of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973); institutions are critiqued for their inability to make sense or get control of the situation such as the police and the church.
The film, of course, contains a twist in the third act, but it’s a twist on a twist that baffles not only Jeon but also the audience. The manhunt for the strange Japanese man ends when he gets thrown off a mountain hitting Jeon’s windshield. Jeon and his friends toss him on the side of the road assuming he is dead. Jeon later finds his daughter at the hospital who appears to be fine; the symptoms seem to be gone and her normal state appears to have returned.
We come to understand that Mu-myeong is perhaps a spirit if not a shaman herself when we see Il-gwang lose a vast amount of blood from his nose and vomit uncontrollably when he encounters her. Mu-myeong drives him out of the village. Il-gwang, whose hex ritual went interrupted by Jeon who could no longer bear the sight of his daughter’s suffering, tells Jeon that it wasn’t the Japanese man who is the evil spirit; it is a young woman clad in white–Mu-myeong. Jeon’s faith in people’s stories gets tested here when Mu-myeong tells him to trust in her and Il-gwang tells him not to trust her but in his words.
Jeon ultimately doesn’t listen to Mu-myeong and enters the house thus breaking whatever spell she’d cast on the house to save his family. Jeon, of course, finds that his daughter did what he’d feared this whole time and slaughtered his wife and mother to death.
Mu-myeong had warned Jeon that Il-gwang and the Japanese stranger have been plotting together (they share the same loin cloth and similar rituals). This is confirmed when a case full of photographs from the Japanese stranger’s walls are found in his possession. Given Korea’s long history of religious scammers taking advantage of the nation’s superstitious/fatalist tendencies, Il-gwang’s appearance here is the yin within his overall film presence as the yang.
Biblical themes are prominent throughout. There’s the bilingual theologian working his way towards becoming a priest working as a liaison between Jeon and the Japanese stranger. There’s the Father of the church who appears useless at the face of the epidemic and demon that is haunting the town–another indication of institutional incompetence. There’s an attack of moths on a car’s windshield that brings to mind the plague of locusts in the Old Testament. The opening shot of the film begins with a verse from the book of Luke when Jesus reappears before his disciples and asks them why they are afraid of the sight of his body, and challenging their doubtful minds. When Mu-myeong tells Jeon to wait for the rooster’s crow three times before entering his house in order to save his family, it is a clear reference to Christ’s warning to Peter that he will deny knowing Christ three times before the rooster’s crow. When Jeon finally realizes that the Mu-myeong is always clad in the victims’ clothes, he loses faith in her words and goes into the house.
Time is always unfriendly to Jeon in this film. He is temperamental and impatient when patience is of utmost necessity, and frozen stiff, speechless or bumblingly incompetent at times when his actions are completely called for. The film satirizes Jeon’s lack of faith and impatience. Doubt and faith are like yin and yang throughout the film, and they are the forces that maintain the momentum of the film.
The film ultimately confronts the audience with the same question that Jeon is faced with: which story are you going to believe? Depending on who is talking to you–a shaman, a priest, a ghost, the devil, or your daughter–your faith will be tested against the story you’ve lived your life believing in. Religion, according to Na’s film, is no different from a folk tale, a spooky town rumor, or the horror movies you grew up knowing and loving. When what occurs externally doesn’t match with what exists internally, that moment becomes the precarious point between doubt and faith. Na’s film plays with genre, religion and spirituality freely throughout but without ever letting us bring down our guard.
The first act has strong notes of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)–everything from the misty, rain-filled blue hues, the frightening image of nature, and the slapsticky black comedy–a new quality to Na’s filmmaking which are not present in his earlier two films. The film was shot by Bong’s frequent collaborator–cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (although he did not film Memories). The music is perhaps the film’s strongest quality, scored by Jang Young-gyu.
Reception so far has been decent. Trade reviews remark that Na’s film lacks logic. This may be true but I say that such an assessment is a cop out (we’ve all seen Magnolia). The Wailing is certainly packed with a whole lot to deconstruct but it is not inscrutable. There are plenty of signals and clues. It’s just a matter of interpreting the narrative, and it takes awhile, and that interpretation is likely to evolve. The film’s positioned to be a cult hit that’ll produce a great deal of wholesome dialogue among cinephiles but only among those who’ll bother to take the time to do it.