Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Wailing (2016)

Warning: there are most certainly spoilers ahead!

Original title: 곡성 (gok-seong)

Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is a small-time copper in a village in the countryside in South Korea. He’s a bit lazy, and a bit ridiculous, but probably a generally decent human being, a combination quite a few of us might encounter when looking in the mirror.

His peaceful life, as well as that of everyone else in the village, will take a disturbing turn when a series of murders strikes the town. Always, a family member seems to go crazy and kill everyone they love, themselves ending up like a surviving character in a Lovecraft story. Nobody knows why this is happening. Could it be an illness? The result of a psychotropic mushroom tonic? Or is it, as some of the village men with lynch mob ambitions believe, some kind of curse brought by the Japanese – we all know how well-hated they are in Korea – man (Jun Kunimura) living in a cabin in the woods?

Even the naturally passive Jong-goo will have to take sides and make decisions once his little daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) shows some of the symptoms the killers tend to start with, and there is really no guarantee whatsoever his decisions will be good ones.

After my third viewing of the film, I’m still not quite sure if I really understand what’s going on in Na Hong-jin’s masterful The Wailing. There are two main interpretations of what’s happening in the film, but there’s also a conscious ambiguity to some of the film’s facts that makes neither of these interpretations a hundred percent convincing, leaving a disquieting gap in a viewer’s understanding. While it certainly has elements that can be described as plot twists, this is not at all a film about plot twists.

This is all too befitting a movie among whose thematic main concerns stands the encounter of day-to-day people with a series of events that always seem to slip out of their grasps, full of hints and explanations that suggest solutions that in turn only open up new questions and disturbing ideas; it doesn’t help here that our protagonist and the people surrounding him – like a lot of us - are not at all comfortable with looking at their own preconceptions and prejudices. In the end, everyone in the film falls back first on violence, then on evoking an authority that can have no power at all over the things going on in the film, a broken Jong-goo ending the film mumbling about his power of fixing everything by being a cop (with the added irony that he never was a respected or good policeman anyway) being the obvious example.

Some of The Wailing’s ambiguities are certainly made greater for a Western viewer like me through a simple lack of cultural knowledge. While I have by now (movies are educational, son) developed a working understanding of certain details of South Korean cultural mores and ghostly lore, the film does contain some elements a Korean audience will pick up on much clearer, with at least two folkloric monsters (three cock crows as a plot element are generally an obvious hint towards folklore) about whom I had to do some exciting internet research before the penny dropped. The thing is, even once you’ve read up on things, the film’s ambiguities are never completely solved, things never quite making sense in a way that felt truly disquieting to me (and curiously close to the pretty Western idea of the Weird). The film seems to argue that there is simply a limit to human understanding of the basic rules of the world he’s living in, and that attempts to bridge these gaps between the human and the other are doomed to end in horrible consequences.

At the same time, there’s also a rather explicit sort of Christian theological explanation to what is going on, though this explanation might only exist because we experience an important scene through the eyes of a Catholic priest-in-training who will tend to read what he experiences through this specific filter. In this reading, The Wailing is a film about characters punished for their sins, Old Testament style. However, their punishment for these sins starts before they have even committed them, and at least some of their sins are indeed caused by their pre-punishment. This too is a pretty disquieting world view that tonally fits the more cosmicist interpretation curiously well. They do at least have the unknowable nature of things and their deep inhumanity (or should that be anti-humanity) in common.

This probably makes The Wailing sound like a very heady film that reaches most of its disquieting power through ideas, a film that’ll bore everyone going into a horror film for more visceral thrills. However, there’s rather a lot of the more explicit stuff in the film too. The movie, at nearly two and a half hours of length, does take a little time to get there, but the build-up is absolutely necessary to give later scenes the heft they need, until the film’s last forty-five minutes or so turn into the stuff of nightmares. Nightmares realized by Na just as well as the film’s humorous, even a little whacky, and certainly strange beginning.

The atmosphere of dread and horror Na builds is incredibly dense, even before the most horrible scenes of the film come to pass. There are a couple of scenes staged so well, and with so much off-handed style, I found myself thinking about them for weeks after watching; I also found myself thinking about the film’s ideas and the disquieting ideas about the nature of our world it suggests. I don’t know many films that touch both on the visceral and the cerebral quite as well as The Wailing does. It’s the sort of film that reminds me of everything I love about horror, weird fiction and philosophy and makes me think about the world it describes – what better compliment could I make a movie?

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