The rural Korean village of Gokseong has a problem. People are killing one another in frenzies of homicidal glee. They’re also growing rashes and boils all over their bodies, erupting in foul-mouthed rages, running around naked at night, seeing ghosts, hiring shamans, and burning down their own houses. And snacking on bad mushrooms, maybe. Oh! And they’re hanging themselves, sometimes. Basically: shit is very bad, and nobody is quite sure what’s causing it.
The Wailing, by crime film director Hong-jin Na, is a brilliant (and occasionally brilliantly silly) melange of horror tropes that feels like someone blended every single good horror-film idea from the last 50 years in a gigantic blender. The result is a hard lump of refined horror that makes only a medium amount of sense.
But somehow, miraculously, The Wailing nevertheless manages to remain deeply and intensely rewarding on a moment-to-moment basis, even though the overall story — deliberately — is never entirely coherent. I saw it in a theater, but I wish I’d seen it at home, with friends and a bowl of popcorn and the windows screwed down tight so we could all scream “what the everloving fuck?” every five seconds, because that’s what this movie deserves. It’s an absolute rollercoaster of disjointed genres and tones, and I loved almost every moment of it.
The film stars Do Won Kwak as Jong-goo, an overweight, less-than-intelligent low-ranking policeman who lives in the countryside village of Gokseong with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his beloved daughter Hyo-jin. For the first hour, The Wailing is a horror-adjacent darkly comedic mystery. What made a local build a giant nest in his house, collect mushrooms, and then brutally murder a local ginseng farmer and his wife? Why is this murderer covered in boils? Does all the mushroom shit in his blood have anything to do with it? Or — as locals whisper — was he led to do this by a middle-aged Japanese man, a new arrival in town whom many claim a) strips naked to eat rotten deer carcasses in the woods and b) is actually a ghost?
Jong-goo’s investigations of the first couple murders in town are deeply, deeply, comedic, to the point where I started to wonder if I’d got my information wrong and this film was actually a parody-horror film. Jong-goo and his colleagues are profoundly inept, and their investigations are a series of slapstick setpieces. I spent this whole first hour desperately trying to identify the horror subgenre this film was trying to be. A zombie movie? A ghost story? A psychedelic drug fad gone wrong? There are moments in the beginning of the film where it genuinely seems as if there will be a scientific explanation for everything happening in Gokseong.
But the film goes steady with none of these explanations. By the time Jong-goo’s family is touched by the rage-rash plague, the tone of the film has changed. Director Na starts out playing improbable lightning-strike injuries for laughs but ends the film with bloodsplattered homes and genuinely-scary, even quite literally subterranean journeys into the hearts of various darknesses.
First, we leave comedy-land for criminal thriller territory. Then the film turns into a Korean version of The Exorcist, then immediately veers hard back into comedy for an action scene where a lynch mob tries to hunt down the Japanese visitor, then dives into a pit of drama and genuine horror which only gets more and more intense — and more and more about religion — the longer the film goes on.
It is absolutely impossible to predict the direction of the plot at any point during the story, and so long as you are willing to accept each scene for whatever-the-fuck it is, it’s an amazing ride. The Japanese man is, perhaps, the best representative of the film’s completely bizarre approach to the many horror tropes and religious traditions from which it draws. He is portrayed variously as a ghost, a satanist, a demon-hunter, an eeeeevil foreigner, and a misunderstood mortal; my personal opinion about which he’d turn out to really be changed about every ten minutes for over an hour straight.
The most tremendous scene in the story is a traditional exorcism which is, probably, the loudest and most terrifying religious ceremony I have ever seen in any movie. Although it is much more naturalistic than its cinema inspiration, I found it much scarier than The Exorcist simply because I had no idea what was going on. I am sure that my overall understanding of the film was hindered by my inability to parse any references to traditional Korean spirituality, but even an uninformed viewer can feel the confusion and terror the exorcism scene inspires in the participants. It is so long and loud that by the end of it, no one — in the audience or in the film — is quite sure whether it could possibly be helping Jong-goo and his family.
The film is definitely about something: it’s about exactly the experience I had in the theater. Both the audience and the characters are totally unable to identify why the bad things are happening, and everyone’s dashing around wildly in search of explanations and solutions. A host of different authorities offer guidance and advice, and Jong-goo and his fellow townsfolk spend time courting a shaman, a priest, traditional medicine, and modern hospitals.
This is a film about what happens when authorities collapse and sense flies out the window on batty wings. As it draws to its conclusion, various characters each desperately try to solve the problem by following the instructions of their own beliefs. By the final few scenes there are so many different valid interpretations flying around that we completely understand Jong-goo’s helpless confusion.
For a movie about so many classic horror tropes, it’s unsurprising that the main character would do a lot of outrageously incompetent shit, and Jong-goo is obviously written as an overt bumbler and coward in order to excuse a lot of the bad choices he must make to keep the plot rolling along. There is no reason for him to disassemble an evil shrine with a pickaxe while multiple religious authorities watch, but he does; there is no reason why he should allow a curse-possessed murderer to keep living at home, but he does. He antagonizes a guard-dog twice and is surprised when it slips its leash both times.
His fellow policemen are all exactly as incompetent — and so are all the municipal authorities in town. (A scene where firemen and police respond to a home arson is completely slapstick.) But the how-could-he-be-so-foolish plot holes in The Wailing are of only minor concern when everything else is such a ridiculously and deliberately amped-up fairground-ride of horror absurdity.
Worse, however, is the fact that the film never really treats its characters’ xenophobia and racism critically. Koreans have had (and continue to have) pretty good reasons to be angry with the Japanese government, which refused for decades to officially apologize for systematic sexual slavery and other war crimes committed during WW2.
At times, however, The Wailing seems to be saying that it’s really extremely reasonable for Jong-goo and other cops to be hostile and violent toward the lone Japanese dude living in town. I was expecting a “gee, wow, this is bad, actually,” scene that never came, and although I know I don’t completely understand the cultural context for this part of the movie, it still left a very bad taste in my mouth.
Regardless, The Wailing is such an accomplished crosshatched over-the-top frenzied mix of comedy, horror, thriller, and mystery that when I walked out of the theater I could only make claw-hands at the moon and demand to myself: what the hell did I just see? That’s the point, though, as far as I can tell — this is exactly what Na wanted me to feel. Whatever he was trying to do, he absolutely did it.