The wailing does what great South Korean films do best – it transcends genres with confounding ease. It’s a potent thriller-mystery-whodunnit with a dash of black comedy. You’d appreciate the many genre tags at the end of the post. But principally, it’s a horror film without a single jump scare or snippet of “found footage”. Hollywood could learn a thing.
Na Hong-Jin’s film is set in a damp and insular hamlet (as horrors are wont to be) and it’s not long before innocent villagers inexplicably start to perish. Three minutes in fact. A sloppy country cop, always late to the scene, gets to work investigating the outbreak of a bizarre illness that results in the afflicted turning violent and murdering those around them.
Dubious superstitions and rumours spread linking these events to the recent arrival of a Japanese stranger occupying a shack up the hill. Townspeople have come to suspect he’s a ghost or evil spirit.
Investigations intensify when the cop’s daughter starts to show signs of the illness, or what is now suspected to be a possession. But the small town police force is anything but a well-oiled machine. At one point in the investigation a young policeman picks up a knife at a murder scene. The forensics officer casually states, “Idiot! Don’t touch it with your bare hands.” The policeman immediately drops the knife and our protagonist interjects with, “He should have wrapped it in a cloth or something, right?” He receives no answer.
It’s as if Inspector Clouseau stumbled onto the set of The Grudge being played out in the village from Twin Peaks.
The fact that the protagonist is so clumsy and ignorant makes us feel for him. He’s well out of his depth. It seems the quickest way to make an audience care and forgive character flaws is to make him/her a babbling idiot or an outright genius. But Kwak Do-won owns the former trope from frame one and we’re drawn to him in a Homer Simpson kind of way.
The director said that after reading the screenplay, which took two years and eight months to write, the cast thought it was too scary. His reply: “What are you talking about? This is a comedy.” They didn’t believe him. And perhaps no one else will either because the humour has a strangely unsettling effect. It’s not harmonious with the overall tone and grows more exaggerated as the investigation becomes more frenzied. This may be because the characters are in denial about the events occurring around them in their peaceful village, a theme escalated when the church declines to assist. Sometimes it’s easier to simply ignore evil. And even when one does confront it, you’re left with more questions than answers.
Horror tends to pursue one of two routes – the visceral slash-fest or the atmospheric indie. The Wailing (somehow) manages to straddle the two.
Of course there are the abrupt flashes of shocking gore for which Korean films have become known. Horror films in general have become increasingly graphic — as has mass media. It can quickly become hammy in an attempt to maintain the attention of a desensitised audience. But in The Wailing, set against the accumulating sense of dread, these gruesome shots stand out. The plot is never reliant on them but the impact of the experience is certainly heightened.
But the film relies on a technique of slow-burning, character-driven drama and it generates suspense through what is suggested. It unravels superstitions and fears of hard-to-prove things lurking in the murky shadows.
What’s unique about the screenplay is that it develops into three clear narratives, and they come to a climax around the ninetieth minute where they collide in a series of loud and energetic intercuts between the policeman trying to look after his contorting daughter, the shaman performing a ritual to erratic drumming and the Japanese stranger performing his own occultist ritual in his home.
It’s hard to ignore the religious symbolism. Especially when the film opens with a quote from Luke regarding the reaction from Jesus’ disciples when he rose from the dead:
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.
He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?
Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
And when the shaman explains that what is plaguing the town is not a man but a ghost, the cop asks how a person he has seen in the flesh can be a ghost. It’s as much a religious question as it’s a socio-political query for the modern world. Na seems to be attempting to get his head around the same dilemma. How can so much evil be done in the world by living flesh and blood, by fellow human beings?
Layers of culture, history and religion are hinted at but never fully explained. The ambiguity makes the intricacies all the more intriguing. It’s the making of a cult classic, already attracting cinephiles proposing elaborate theories and back stories but finding little common ground.
The only thing standing in the way of a bigger audience (apart from the subtitle thing) is perhaps that it is wide open to interpretation. Seekers of a final act tightly-concluded with a bow, look away. And for this reason it hopefully won’t be remade in English.
With Nordic-noir having (possibly) run its course and Korean filmmakers like Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho making films with a broader appeal, it’s time to keep an eye on what South Korean cinema is doing. Its auteurs are plainly not short of ideas. They’re breathing life into and subverting staid genres. And Na Hong-Jin has catapulted himself to the top of a promising list of directors to watch in the future.
All said, The Wailing is more treat than trick and a touch of class for a Halloween fright-night.