Posted on September 30, 2016

The Wailing’s brilliant Ambiguity

Dawn Keetley

The third feature film of South Korean director Na Hong-jin, The Wailing (Goksung) is his first foray into the horror genre. His first two films, for which he also wrote the screenplay, are thriller / action films, The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010).

The Wailing is a beautiful, lush, and thoroughly provocative film, featuring great performances by its four stars: Kwak Do Won as local police officer, Jong-Goo, besieged by sudden vicious murders in his peaceful mountain community; Kim Hwan-hee as his daughter, Hyo-jin; Chun Woo-hee as a mysterious (unnamed) woman who seems to have some knowledge of what is behind the violence; and Jun Kunimura as an (also unnamed) Japanese “stranger” to the village, who becomes the target of the villagers’ suspicions.


When I call this film “lush,” I’m not only talking about the cinematography—although that is indeed lush. The Wailing is also replete with meaning, suggesting at various points just about every possible explanation for the strange events unfolding in this small South Korean village.


The mystery erupts when Jong-Goo is called to a crime scene early in the morning and discovers that a man has inexplicably killed his family. The film at first suggests an epidemic, perhaps of unnatural origin (evoking certain incarnations of the zombie film)—although the camera lingers on a strange plant above the doorway and mushrooms are also hinted at as a culprit. The suspicions of the villagers and then the police soon crystallize around a mysterious Japanese stranger (Kunimura), who quickly becomes the locus of dread: we see him invade the dreams of a local man, and then of Jong-Goo himself, as a flesh-eating monster. Whether the man’s monstrous proclivities are confined to nightmares soon becomes a matter of doubt, for both villagers and viewers. (Na Hong-jin is clearly refracting here the tense history of Japanese-Korean relations, including the thirty-five years between 1910 and 1945 that Korea was subject to Japanese rule; it takes frighteningly little time to place the Japanese man for everything.)


Indeed, the film itself seems to move inexorably toward identifying the Japanese man as the origin of the violence, which only worsens and soon claims Jong-Goo’s daughter, Hyo-jin, who seems possessed by some demonic spirit. Hyo-jin’s “possession” drives Jong-Goo’s investigation into unofficial and more brutal channels, as he tracks down the Japanese stranger in his mountain cabin and discovers what appears to be a magical shrine, replete with photographs of the possessed and the dead.


The Japanese stranger’s implication in the strange violence plaguing the village seems so assured that one reviewer has written that, while, at first, Na Hong-jin seems to suggest that the “town’s seemingly collective xenophobia is misguided,” it then “confirms it is not, which gives this otherwise ingenious probe of religion and superstition an unfortunate taint of isolationist propaganda.”[i]  I disagree. The film is never this certain; Na Hong-jin never makes anything so clear.

There is a climactic scene, near the end, when a young priest confronts the Japanese stranger and, yes, he appears to turn into a hideous devil, thus appearing to confirm that HE has plagued the village, has possessed Hyo-jin. But, as the stranger tells the priest, he is only becoming exactly what the priest expected to see. The priest demands that the stranger show him his “true form” and then adds, “You’re the devil. Why can’t you say it?” The stranger replies, “You’ve already said it. I’m the devil. My words, whatever I say, they won’t change your mind.” He continues that the priest has “come here to confirm your suspicions about me.”


So the viewer is left to make up their own mind at the end: is the seemingly unambiguous transformation of the Japanese stranger into the “devil” only what the priest is seeing, driven by the force of his faith? Or is it real?

Indeed, everything at the end of the film is beautifully shaped to cast doubt on everything we think we might know. The scene between the priest and the Japanese stranger is intercut with scenes of Jong-Goo confronting the strange woman, who tells him how to save his family. But so does the shaman, whom he talks to on the phone. Jong-Goo is torn between them. Which should he trust? Both characters, though, like the Japanese stranger, are poised perfectly on the line between good and evil: we may be led to believe one thing about each of them, but then Na Hong-jin interjects a scene, a shot, that casts doubt on our belief.


The Wailing is, finally, all about faith: the woman tells Jong-Goo he has to have faith in her, that faith is the only way he can save his family. Is faith a good thing, though? Or does it lead you down the path the priest seems to go—possibly conjuring the devil where he was not?

As The Wailing moves toward suggesting the omnipresence of supernatural forces—good and evil—coursing through the villagers’ lives, shaping their fates, it also implicates the merely human. The woman tells Jong-Goo that the reason his daughter is “possessed” is that “her father has sinned.” He “suspected another. He tried to kill him and finally succeeded,” she declared. Jong-Goo, indeed, went easily down the path of blaming the Japanese stranger for everything. Was his suspicion—suspicion of the outsider—the cause of everything? Was it that very mundane human suspicion of someone who was not “Us” that unleashed the powerful forces of disease, violence, and supernatural malevolence? It’s a real possibility, and it makes a powerful point because Jong-Goo is such a human, likeable character: he’s not bad, he even scoffs at the prejudiced rumors about the Japanese man at first. But he gets drawn in, and we have to wonder if, like the priest, what he “sees” in the Japanese man is only what he was already convinced he’d see.

In the end The Wailing makes faith and suspicion seem uncannily alike, leaving both characters and viewers alike paralyzed. Do they believe or do they doubt? Either one seems to lead to destruction.

I could imagine some viewers disliking the fact that The Wailing raises so many possible explanations for what happens and confirming none of them. But for me, it’s where the brilliance of the film lies. It’s been a long time since I saw such a provocative horror film.

[i] Leah Picket, “The Wailing,” Chicago Reader


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