The Wailing (Goksung)
Korea (2016) Dir. Na Hong-Jin
It’s been over two hours since the end credits of this Korean supernatural thriller began to roll and I am still dumbfounded. Na Hong-Jin has managed to render me speechless – or whatever the written word equivalent is.
The story – which is paradoxically simple yet convoluted – is not the problem, nor is the content, oscillating between lighthearted tomfoolery and flat out disturbance, or even the open ending. It is more a case of The Wailing leaving me unsure of what I saw – in a good way, natch.
In the sleepy rural hamlet of Goksung, police officers Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-Won) and Oh Sung-Bok (Son Kang-Kuk) investigate a murder in which an infected man slaughtered his entire family. Shortly after a house inexplicably catches fire after another family is killed with the owner hanging herself the next day. Many locals believe this is linked to the arrival of a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura).
Jong-Goo dismisses this gossip until his young daughter Hyo-Jin (Kim Hwan-Hee) develops a rash and begins to misbehave. Unable to find a valid medical reason, it is suggested that Hyo-Jin has been possessed by an evil spirit, so shaman, Il Gwang (Hwang Jung-Min) is called in to exorcise her.
Throw in a Hitchcockian build-up rife with misdirection and McGuffins, which are actually salient, a narrative that slips in and out of lucidity, even some comedy horror, and you have one hell of distressing and unforgettable cinematic journey before you that will test your nerve and powers of observation.
Na Hong-Jin made his name with the taut, violent crime thrillers The Chaser in 2008 and The Yellow Sea two years later. The Wailing is unlike either of these films yet the shared DNA between them all is evident in the tense world building, flawed characters and unbridled gore.
Divining what the film is actually about is another challenge since it deals with the horror of demonic possession, the terror of families being ripped apart by their own kin, the rural communities hidebound attachment to ancient superstitions and even some good old fashioned xenophobia.
The latter, aimed towards the Japanese man, might be a case of residual discrimination dating back to the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, or perhaps Na is commenting on the way small communities treat visitors as outsiders, making it easier to blame someone else rather than look to themselves.
Nobody is perfect in this world and Na makes sure that everyone has some flaw or quirk to raise questions about even the slightest issue; Jong-Goo is always late and tends to sit back while others do the heavy work. He is considered a bit of a buffoon and no-one takes his weird dreams of a blood covered naked man (aside from a loin cloth), with red eyes about to kill him seriously.
When a young woman Mu-Myeong (Chun Woo-Hee) appears before Jong-Goo one day claiming to be a witness to the house fire murder, her existence is balked at by his peers, leaving him to doubt if her really saw her. Yet people are willing to believe that the Japanese man is a ghost despite being alive and well. Jong-Goo can’t win.
And this becomes a recurring theme of the story, that Jong-Goo is torn between different vendors all peddling the same wares albeit with their own individual twist, all of which are plausible, but who should he believe? The view becomes muddier when a young Christian priest Yang Yi-Sam (Kim Do-Yoon) acts as a translator for the Japanese man, leading to his own investigation that throws another possible outcome into the mix.
By now the 2 ½ hour run time feels completely justified with so much ground to be covered and in all honesty, one never checks the clock as Na is a master at spinning an engaging story that hooks you from the start. The early going might be scene setting and character introduction but this is vital as every detail, no matter how innocuous, matters in the final analysis.
Constantly adding layer upon layer on intrigue each scene brings with it something new barely pausing for breath. Of all the set pieces the most memorable would be Il Gwang’s exorcism, a mixture of tribal percussion and extravagant showmanship. As a piece of cinema, it is a hypnotic maelstrom of energy and visual splendour, the urgency of the pounding drums rooting us by force in our seats for the duration.
Running concurrently is a pared down ritual that the Japanese man is conducting in a small hut with less pageantry but with equal fervour and kinetic energy. It might mean nothing but while Il-Gwang uses white chickens as his sacrifices, the Japanese man has black ones, but it is one of many fascinating juxtapositions Na throws in to keep us thinking.
For a film with an epic run time the presentation doesn’t feel epic, which gives it a sense of grounding and credibility. Na was never flash with his productions but he knows how to manipulate the audience’s emotions and he does that expertly here – directing our suspicions one way then forcing us to change.
If this is a traumatic experience to sit through the cast must have had it even harder. Kwak Do-Won does a superb job in transforming Jong-Goo from a bumbling oaf to serious man on a mission but it is young Kim Hwan-Hee as Hyo-Jin who truly impresses. Her essaying of the sweet child turned demonic brat is as terrifying as it spellbinding, from the sheer spite in her face as she spits out obscenities to the physical performance during the exorcism.
Whatever you want to make of The Wailing, one thing that is irrevocable is that it is one hell of a journey and a deeply affecting and provocative one. What it all means is open to interpretation but I guarantee you will be thinking about it for quite a while after it ends.