A police officer and his family. A shaman. A ghostly woman. A Japanese drifter. A priest. At the end of its 156-minute runtime, The Wailing puts its Rube Goldberg machine constructed with blood and violence and superstition into motion, sending its myriad forces spiraling into oblivion. It isn’t until these final minutes that the South Korean horror film tips its hand, layering mysteries and revelations one over another, subjecting its audience to the disorienting, oppressive horror of uncertainty.
The Wailing, the third feature by South Korean director Na Hong-jin, is set in the sleepy village of Goksung, a play on the film’s title, nestled in a thick forest within a foggy mountain range. At the outset, Goksung is plagued by a string of grisly killings. Villagers are found catatonic, covered in bloody boils, after murdering their families. Jong-goo, (played by Kwak Do-won) a bumbling police officer, is tasked with investigating the cause of the murders. Though the police chief and other villagers suspect that the murders are carried out under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms, Jong-Goo’s investigation leads him to believe that a mysterious Japanese stranger (played by Jun Kunimura) has the answers. The deeper Jong-goo digs however, the more labyrinthine the mystery becomes.
In Stephen Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws, the shark doesn’t appear on screen until over an hour of the movie’s run time. Yet the sense of dread and impending horror is present long before the reveal of the film’s monster. It’s a common technique long-utilized in monster films. 1933’s King Kong had the audience waiting 47 minutes before the titular ape made its onscreen debut. Director Guillermo Del Toro referred to unseen monsters as “the thing that lurks in the shadows, the thing can only be whispered about.” The Wailing forces that idea to its logical extreme, suggesting the greatest terror is one that may not ever reveal itself. “It’s like a hidden threat deep inside. I felt that this would be more terrifying than a dynamic threat — something dwelling inside and not visible,” said Na, in an interview with Screen Anarchy.
The internal threat that Na speaks of is, in some ways, literal. In one scene, Jong-goo and his partner are at a hospital, visiting an interviewee who claimed to have been attacked by a naked, rabid Japanese stranger. Hearing a commotion elsewhere in the hospital, Jong-goo finds a room in which doctors and nurses are struggling to contain a man who is uncontrollably convulsing. The man, who had been found covered in crimson blisters after stabbing his family members at the beginning of the film, screams and contorts his body until shard of his collarbone pierces his neck, killing him. The scene is made all the more disturbing in retrospect when Jong-goo’s daughter, Hyo-jin, goes through the same contortions during a shaman’s exorcism. The unseen forces from within the self can inflict greater horrors than anything from the outside. Our greatest fears are only ever realized in our own minds, after all. This is why Moo-myeoung (Chun Woo-hee), a mysterious and ghostly woman, prevents Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min), a shaman, from entering Jong-goo’s home by making the shaman bleed from his nose and vomit uncontrollably. What is literally internal is manifested externally.
Na’s internal horror isn’t just relegated to how our bodies can betray us either. The murders are framed as familial, or at least are limited to a household and its inhabitants. It taps into the fear that things we are intimately familiar can become hostile or alien to us without warning. Where could safety and security be found if not in one’s castle?
It’s no coincidence, then, that The Wailing is so concerned with the place of religion in the modern world. In an interview with The Playlist, Na spoke on meeting with clergy members of various religious groups prior to conceptualizing The Wailing, spurred by the unnatural deaths of several close friends in a short period of time. “Why did THEY have to be victims OF ALL PEOPLE? I already had the answers for the ‘How’. What I had to find out was the ‘Why,'” he said. It’s not uncommon for people to turn to religion for answers to the unanswerable. To have faith is, in a sense, to accept the unknown with open arms. Religion is a source of comfort and community, a compass for people seeking direction in a vast, chaotic universe.
Despite being a Christian (though admittedly a lackadaisical one), Na understands the push and pull or religious belief: “I sometimes find myself agreeing to the concepts and comments that deny the existence of God. When making important decisions, I seek counseling from the Buddhist monks at temples in the mountains and pray there as well.” The tension between belief systems in The Wailing is self-evident, between the priest, the shaman, Moo-myeoung, the stranger (who is suspected to be a shaman or a demon at different points of the film), and the agnostic (or religiously vague) Jong-goo. At some point, it is revealed that an exorcism through a shaman was recommended to one of the murdered families, who dismissed the suggestion. This makes it easy for Jong-goo to hire Il-gwang at the behest of his mother-in-law. As the exorcism reaches a fever pitch, the film cross-cuts between Il-gwang’s feverish chanting and the Japanese stranger’s own ritual, seemingly in opposition. But before its over, Jong-goo stops the exorcism in a rage, believing it will kill his daughter. Where faith and spirituality normally provide comfort, in The Wailing the cosmic uncertainty of religion is enigmatic and terrifying.
There’s an elephant in the room that can’t be ignored, however, and that’s the presence of the Japanese drifter in the film. It’s difficult not to read his role as playing on another type of fear: xenophobia. Though Na has said that “xenophobia had nothing to do with” the writing of Kunimura’s character, The Wailing is one of a handful of major films from South Korea, such as Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows and Park Chan-wook ‘s The Handmaiden, wherein Japanese characters are portrayed as malevolent or villainous. In the case of The Wailing and The Handmaiden, they’re regularly referred to derisively as “Japs.” These exist with the historical context of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, the details of which are certainly too complicated, and probably inappropriate, to get into here. It’s worth considering however, and is reminiscent of the nationalistic sentiment behind major Chinese films such as the Ip-Man series.
The Wailing has faced criticism of its length and pacing, that its story teeters toward illogical. Na doesn’t seem concerned with the minutiae of his movie’s plot, because he’s preoccupied with committing a magnificent magic trick to film. The Wailing layers red herrings and plot twists deftly and frequently without ever becoming obtuse or predictable. And the greatest trick the devil ever played is telling you exactly what happens without you ever realizing it.