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'The Wailing': A Horror Revealed in Hindsight

The latest from South Korean director Na Hong-jin may be best watched backwards.

Dorothy Woodend 18 Jun

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Director Na Hong-jin's film The Wailing is a horror movie best watched backwards. By which I mean it's a film that only reveals itself in hindsight and in some ways it doesn't even do that. After seeing it, I was tempted to re-watch the entire 156 minutes to see where the real clues lie and where various red things are placed to distract one's attention and understanding.

The Wailing is also a film that is difficult to fully discuss without the much-wailed-about spoilers. If you fear that too much may be revealed, simply close your eyes and slip to the bottom of the page. I will wake you when it's over.

The story begins with a biblical quote, specifically a line from Luke 24:37-39, in which Jesus exhorts his followers: ''See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.'' The next thing we see is a wriggling worm being stuck on a barbed fishhook. No more direct indicator is needed than this. You may soon come to understand the feelings of this poor invertebrate.

At first glance, The Wailing shares some similarities with Bong Joon-ho's earlier film Memories of Murder, including the work of cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo and editor Kim Sun-min. But whereas Memories was based on real events (a series of murders in the mid-1980s), The Wailing exists in some suspended time and place, as indicated by its biblical beginnings.

We are in the land of good and evil although it looks a lot like a rainy, bleak corner of rural Korea. In the small village of Goksung (which translates roughly as ''the wailing,'' a descriptor that probably doesn't improve property values), the townsfolk regard each other with suspicion and occasional open contempt. A common form of endearment is ''fucking idiot.'' The rain pours down in buckets and a permanent funk seems to hang over the place. Things are grim but they get grimmer still when the locals begin to murder each other. The first indication that wickedness has come to town occurs at the house of the local ginseng farmer who decides to butcher his wife and another man with great enthusiasm.

Local police sergeant Gong-ju (Kwak Do-won) gets the call that someone has been murdered. ''What kind of fucker kills people?'' asks his mother-in-law? You're about to find out, as the film wends it way forward, plodding along with the rather schlumpy figure of Gong-ju. Upon arrival at the crime scene, our redoubtable hero sees the killer in question, coated with blistered pustules, blank of eye, and empty of human feeling. Here the biblical overtones begin to bonk you on the head, with a pointed reference to the Book of Job's plague of boils. But in addition to the bloodied bodies, Gong-ju notices something else: a posey of flowers (snapdragons) threaded through with string hung over a doorway. If only he'd paid more attention. But at this point, both the film's protagonist and we, the audience, are equally clueless.

Are bad mushrooms to blame for the sudden spate of homicidal mania, or is the local Japanese man (played by Jun Kunimura) actually the impetus for the rash of sudden death? The locals regard ''the Jap,'' as they call him, with deep suspicion, and the rumours fly. Accused of raping a woman by the river, he also has the odd habit of popping up at the murder scenes, camera in hand. As the film progresses the death toll mounts, and the next murdered family also gets their house burned down for good measure. When Gong-ju and his partner are assigned to watch the crime scene, an even more mysterious figure arrives. A strange woman in white introduces herself by lobbing stones at the cops for a few hours. They don't do much other than tell her to bugger off. But is she a saviour or the real progenitor of all the town's ills? Or is she something else, far stranger still? What the hell is happening here?

Who to believe, what to believe?

We only have poor old Gong-ju to guide us, and he's not the most inspiring character to grace the screen. The man is largely incompetent, somewhat cowardly, and not particularly well liked by his coworkers, his boss or even by his wife. He stumbles through his days moving from humiliation to despair and back again. The only person who seems to see the good in him is his young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), who understands that her father is pretty imperfect but likes him anyway. She catches him in flagrante delicto in the back seat of car but simply remarks matter-of-factly that it is not the first time she has witnessed such indiscretion. The scenes between father and daughter provide some of the only gentle moments in the movie, so savour them while you can. Bad things are afoot and some of them are in the woods, wearing diapers and tearing at the carcasses of dead deer.

Soon, a local hunter tells Gong-ju and his partner a story. Captured in vivid flashback, the man recounts a meeting in the woods with a red-eyed creature that pauses long enough from its venison dinner to attack him. When the cops decide to investigate the story and drag the reluctant hunter along with them, their outing at first resembles something from an Abbott and Costello film, complete with someone getting struck by a bolt of lightning. As the film moves weirdly from comedy to horror, a deeply unsettling feeling sets in. You simply never know where to place for your faith.

One moment, it seems quite clear that the elderly Japanese man is the source of something malignant. In the next, he is described as a scholar and a shaman, a holy man sent to save the village. Who to believe, what to believe? Perhaps that is the essential question at hand -- that of faith, and more explicitly that of evil. Evil may be old as the hills but it is still one of the greatest mysteries of the human condition. The film has no clear answers, and perhaps even more troubling, confounds and confuses until one is uncertain where to even place hope and sympathy.

This may be purposeful. Director Na Hong-jin spent a year in the editing room with this film and he obviously wants viewers to question what is happening onscreen. The film is exquisitely wrought, with a deep focus that draws the eye into the frame. Never was bloody carnage more beautifully filmed. As the camera pans around bodies curled like drowned flowers inside a well, or a figure swaying gently from a tree, it is hard not to be mesmerized by these depictions of mortality. But what are we to make of all this death and destruction so richly captured? There are scattered clues, but you will only recognize them by looking backwards. (Keep your eyes peeled for a little red barrette.) As one character remarks on the nature of the evil that has infected the town, it is like someone fishing, throwing out a line to see who bites.

'It was something that I couldn't dare speak of'

The hook is planted close to home when Hyo-kin falls ill. Suddenly the sweet kid is telling her father to fuck off and sporting the same blistering rash that the other townsfolk displayed before succumbing to violence and death. At the behest of his mother-in-law, Gong-ju hires a shaman to cast out the evil sprit that has possessed his daughter. The rather slick city shaman (played by Hwang Jung-min) in a ponytail and sports coat ensemble wants $10,000 to perform a death hex. Dancers, drummers, and a few pig carcasses are assembled, and so begins one of the strangest sequences in the film. As one bravura ceremony is contrasted with another, the film cuts back and forth between the elaborate ritual performed at Gong-ju's house and another, far more secret ceremony performed deep in the woods. The only uniting factor is the constant shrieking cries of poor little Hyo-kin, who writhes and contorts like a worm on a hook.

I must admit that the cultural signifiers in the film confounded me. While the relationship between Korea and Japan is a particularly complex subject, as indicated by the deep antipathy the townspeople have for the Japanese stranger, the religious aspects of what is happening in this scene are especially confusing. But perhaps they are designed to do just that. While the film occasionally teeters on the verge of incoherence, the precision with which it made must mean something, surely. So who or what exactly is the genesis of this story?

In the film's final conclusion, the biblical references circle back around with a scene that recalls Mark 14:72, in which a rooster crowing three times signals despair and ultimately the loss of faith. In an interview with the Korean Times, the filmmaker said: ''It was something that I couldn't dare speak of. This result came from multiple interviews I had with leaders from several different religions… It all started from the question, 'Could there be another reason?' Is there a God? If there is, would he be always good?''

The final word of The Wailing may provide an answer, but it may not be the one you want.  [Tyee]

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