The Wailing begins with a quote from Luke 24 in which Jesus appears before his disciples after he has risen from the dead. At the sight of his disciples’ disbelief, he asks “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” Jesus’ appearance is supposed to be concrete proof of his divinity and is supposed to dispel doubts from the minds of his beholders. Perhaps in a less complicated world and a more limited society, his appearance would have the intended effect. But in the world of The Wailing, director Na Hong-jin argues that if Jesus were to appear in a similar manner, his intended miracle would have the opposite effect.
For a while, it seems that the Bible verse is a strange beginning for a narrative that focuses on characters who are decidedly not concerned with spiritual matters. Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a local cop, is a brusque, simple man. He seems to love his family well enough, though he carries on a sexual dalliance with another woman and is even caught by his daughter Hyojin (Kim Hwan-hee) right after he has finished the act. Even as the first murder is reported and disturbing events happen, such as a naked woman appearing at the police station in a thunderstorm, Jong-goo approaches these events in a perfunctory manner and scoffs at the superstitious ramblings of people around him.
Then he starts to have nightmares about a Japanese visitor to the region. Soon after, his daughter is afflicted by the same disease as the other victims, which causes them to become extremely violent and eventually perish, usually after killing people around them. As Jong-goo struggles to make sense of what is going on around him, the film becomes even more harrowing and confusing, like riding a roller coaster in pitch darkness. The filmmaking reflects this confusion in its wildly varying tone. While tonal shifts are hardly unique to Na Hong-jin or even non-American filmmakers in general, The Wailing is constantly walking this razor-thin tightrope between outright slapstick and nihilistic terror.
The first time I saw this film, I was too wrapped up in the narrative and trying to decipher what was going on to let out so much as a chuckle. The second time, when I knew what was coming, I could laugh at the melodramatic moment when lightning flashes onto Jong-goo’s face as he hears about one of the killings. The acting is also so big that if any of the actors had pushed their performances a little too far, it would have been an outright comedy. For example, the fact that Kim Hwan-hee as Hyojin, the little girl who becomes the next Regan McNeil, is the most terrifying force in this movie is indicative of the deftness of Na Hong-jin’s touch and the young Kim’s acting prowess.
While most horror movies will eventually capitulate and give us answers, the beauty of The Wailing is how it refuses to do so. Ambiguity paints nearly every character from the possibly mentally ill Moo-myung (Chun Woo-hee), the woman in white, to the brash, mercenary shaman Il-Gwang (Hwang Jung-min), who first appears on screen in his car, driving through the green hills, in a scene reminiscent of The Shining and with a discordant electronic score from Dalpalan. This ambiguity is why we can ultimately relate to Jung-goo, since not only is he trying to fend off a threat to his family, but he remains profoundly in the dark, even as authority after authority claim to give him answers. Even the religious figures such as Il-Gwang and a young Catholic priest – who are supposed to affirm other people’s faith – make mistakes, causing the threat of the unknown to become dangerously stronger.
We also see Jong-goo and others making the mistakes of people who live in ignorance. In addition to blindly trusting authority figures, there is a xenophobic streak that runs through this movie as Jong-goo suspects the Japanese man, simply for being a foreigner. It is important to note that this xenophobia is rooted in a long, complicated relationship between Korea and Japan, especially since Japanese colonialism and World War II devastated Korea and even today, Korea and Japan regularly have conflicts over the Japanese practice of “comfort women” and the ownership of the Liancourt rocks. Yet the effect of automatically discriminating against the Japanese man is more of a sign of how people act when they are afraid rather than an actual condemnation of Japan and its people, despite how some events play out later in the film.
Many horror films about faith and religious belief seek to shock and go for cheap jump scares and other gimmicks. The Wailing may have some of the same DNA as those films, but under its exploitation veneer, it is an earnest exploration of the power and relevance of faith in a modern society, no matter what religion you believe in. Even the intense climax that cuts between two narratives and in which hands are apparently revealed leaves us with more questions and answers. Whereas in most horror movies about religion are about tests of faith in which the people who have the least faith are punished, The Wailing poses that there are too many divinities to believe in, and even if Jesus or any self-declared messiah were to appear before us, we are too far gone to believe our own senses.