THE WAILING Review: Horror Comes To South Korea

Another heavy film from the director of THE YELLOW SEA.

I am not usually a fan of Horror movies. In my travels and tribulations, I have learned to fear the wickedness of the living far more than the fanciful tales of the (un)dead. With this in mind, I can say enthusiastically that The Wailing is an astonishing film that manages to truly unnerve and entertain in equal measure. The film is a potent milieu of viscerally thrilling murder mystery and sullen philosophical, spiritual discourse, a twisting of genre and theme the likes of which can only be found in the realm of Korean Cinema.

In a small rural village outside Seoul, a series of grisly murders shakes the community to its core. Common among the crimes are perpetrators entranced in fugue states, marked by a bizarre skin affliction. Further investigation begins to link the crimes to a mysterious Japanese traveler. The deeper the investigation goes, however, the closer the police and townsfolk come to staring at a void of supernatural horror in which faith is questioned, the terror of the unknowable becomes reality, and the darkness of the heart is revealed.

The most immediately striking element of The Wailing is its masterful grip on tone, constantly swaying back and forth between abject horror and almost slapstick levels of comedy while always feeling cohesive. The key to this balancing act is leading man Kwak Do-won as Jong-Goo, the decent if somewhat schlubby police sergeant who gets deeply embroiled in the mystery. His reactions to the ghastly murders verge on buffoonish, but it works well as the honest reaction of a simple dork getting in way over his head. At the same time, as the story twists and turns into its second act and beyond (the film adheres to a five-act structure rather than a typical Hollywood three-act structure), Kwak imbues his character with genuine pathos and the moral ambiguity of a true tragic figure. The movie feels like a strange hybrid of The Exorcist and The Ghost & Mister Chicken, but the emotional interplay is genuine all the same. The laughs are big, the fear is blood curdling, and the experience is engaging throughout.

The Wailing is not simply concerned with jump scares and knee-slappers though. The film provokes serious thoughts about the nature of evil, faith, and spirituality. At the same time, these broader ideas are intertwined with very specific Korean cultural issues. The fear of the supernatural and unknown goes hand in hand with the society's xenophobic attitudes, and the fear of the Japanese stranger coincides with the well documented history of Korean-Japanese resentment. This thematic interplay is bolstered by the fantastic performance of renowned Japanese actor Jun Kunimura, who plays the Stranger with an equal sense of ominous menace and sympathetic humanity.

The relationship between cultural identity and outside influences also feeds into the exploration of belief. The film opens with a bible verse (whose meaning becomes dark and twisted as it gets referenced again at the films end), and overtly references Christianity throughout. A young Catholic Deacon, who is also nephew to Jong-Goo's partner, figures importantly into the story as he translates between the police and the Stranger. The Deacon lends a voice of morality that counterpoints the wavering ethics of Jong-Goo, who suspects the stranger's foul play and becomes desperately unhinged when the mysterious affliction affects his own family. When Jong-Goo's daughter begins suffering from the symptoms of the strange illness observed in the murderers, his family calls upon the help of a flashy Shaman played by Hwang Jeong-Min. One could interpret the interplay between the Deacon, the Stranger, the Shaman, and Jong-Goo's daugher as representative of the conflict and confluence of ideas between Christianity, Buddhism, and Traditional Korean Shamanism.

That is but one interpretation from someone who has more experience in Korean culture and Korean cinema than the average American, but remains a cultural outsider nonetheless. That said, the beauty of The Wailing is its openness to multiple readings thanks to a purposefully ambiguous ending. Indeed, in a recent interview with the Korean Times, the director himself proclaims that his film was intentionally open-ended, leaving the audience free to interpret the film's meaning. This openness and my interpretation of the film very much reminded me another high profile horror film which opened earlier this year: Robert Eggers' The Witch. Both films involve a family afflicted by supernatural evil, and both are less concerned with whether or not an evil spirit actually exists than the nature of evil and the darkness inherent in humanity. Just the same, there is room enough in each film to arrive at different conclusions regarding the meaning of the journey.

Another interpretation one can derive from both films invovles the question “why do bad things happen to good people?”. While The Witch seems to posit that “perhaps people are never that good in the first place”, The Wailing makes reference to Christian mythology and seems to coincide with the story of Job. Interestingly, I've found that many people interpret the moral of Job's story as something along the lines of “remain faithful no matter what and you will be blessed”, whereas I feel the true lesson of the story is essentially “Shit Happens”. God does not explain why he cursed Job, but instead proclaims that the will of God/the universe is beyond Job's comprehension so far that he should not even ask. A similar questioning of nature and the universe occurs near the end of The Wailing, and as with the story of Job, we are left to ponder the meaning of the terrors and disaster that has befallen our characters with no true answer but what we find in ourselves.

The Wailing premiered in U.S. Theaters on June 3rd in select cities. Check the film distributors website to see if/when the film will be playing near you.