WHEN sickness starts spreading in The Wailing (Cert. 15), the villagers of Gokseong, South Korea, connect it to the arrival of a Japanese man living in the forest near by. I don’t suppose he helps the situation by grotesquely leaping around in various guises and frightening the locals.
Things go from bad to worse. Quite irrationally, and in brutal fashion, people start killing one another. The victims seem to come back to haunt the living. Bearing in mind that the film begins with a quote from Luke 24.37-39 — the risen Christ refuting the disciples’ belief that he is a ghost — we are being led to believe that those murdered remain tangible beings, complete with flesh and bones.
Sergeant Jong-Goo (Kwak Do Wan) is investigating the case with a colleague in a scenario where distinguishing the living from the dead takes much of one’s attention. It is also a place of thunderstorms, lightning, and almost continuous rain: portents of a world experiencing the severe disruption of normality. Why it should be so is never adequately explained. It just is. And perhaps that is the key to Na Hong-jin’s opus. There are more questions than answers.
His previous films include The Yellow Sea and The Chaser, both big hits in their native territory and receiving much acclaim at international festivals. While there are clear religious references in those films, The Wailing approaches in a wildly head-on fashion the mysteriousness of existence. A country where nearly half its citizens declare themselves as having no religion may not be well-equipped to deal with what appears to be the supernatural. As such, it can by default be left to the rest of the South Koreans (of whom twice as many are Christians rather than Buddhists) to make claims for this aspect to be taken seriously.
Na vacillates between detective-story and lynch-mob antics, ultimately plumping for the occult horror genre. Two-and-a-half hours of bangs and fangs, crashes and flashes are generally effective. The viewer’s suspension of disbelief lies elsewhere, with the sergeant’s slow-wittedness. It is only when terrible things start to happen to his daughter (the actress Kim Hwan-hee) that he catches on. Gokseong, we have a problem.
At this point, he enlists not only a shaman, but a probationary Roman Catholic priest. The latter is mainly seconded because he speaks some Japanese, and can intercede with the stranger in the woods. The exorcism that follows is likely to have viewers bewildered about how they would handle apparent demonic-possession themselves. Is it a case of any port in a storm for the hapless detective? If it does not do any good, then at least it won’t do any harm to undergo such extravagant indigenous rituals, which long precede the arrival of Christianity. Tellingly, the Roman Catholic Church stays aloof from all this, leaving us to wonder whether it has anything to offer.
The gospel text with which the film begins would suggest that there is an element to life that transcends what passes for so-called reality. There is a continual battle for the soul going on, one that rationality alone cannot comprehend or resolve. But, Na is asking, what will take its place?