Recent phenomena such as the 2020 Best Picture Oscar win for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) and the global Netflix smash hit Squid Game have made it especially clear that South Korea is a major player in the global culture of the twenty-first century. South Korean pop music is also an international phenomenon, with “Baby Shark” and “Gangnam Style” being two of the most viewed YouTube videos of all time. Horror film is one of the genres in which Korean products have had particularly notable success. For example, Parasite itself is borderline horror, while Bong also directed a highly effective satirical monster movie in The Host (2006). Another of South Korea’s top directors, Park Chan-wook, has produced a number of significant horror films, beginning with The Vengeance Trilogy, consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005). Park’s Thirst (2009), meanwhile, is one of very best vampire films of the new century, while he moved into English-language American film with the superb Hitchcockian psychological horror film Stoker (2013). Similarly, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016) is one of the finest of all zombie films, while Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2002) is a ghost story that derives a well-known Korean folk tale and thus moves into folk horror territory. Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing moves even further into this territory, drawing from a number of elements of Korean folk culture to produce a complex and compelling horror drama that also includes a number of comic touches.
Part of the complexity of The Wailing comes from the fact that it participates in a number of different genres. In the film’s opening moments, the film appears to be a serio-comic police procedural in which police sergeant Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) seems a bit overmatched by a wave of murders that is sweeping through Gokseong, his small village in the mountains of South Korea. Then, the investigation begins to point to a Japanese man (played by Jun Kunimura) who is living in the village in a remote cabin that turns out to be filled with strange artifacts that seem to point toward his potential status as a serial killer so extreme that the film begins to move into the realm of horror films such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991). These artifacts themselves suggest the hybrid nature of this film, consisting of items that seem to be related to some sort of folk magic, but also consisting of modern photographs of the local victims. At the same time, there is evidence of a mysterious infection moving through the village, suggesting that we might be looking at some sort of plague film. Moreover, for experienced genre viewers, the appearance and behavior of the infected will immediately suggest that the infected might have been turned into zombies. But, as events get stranger and stranger, including striking changes in the behavior of Jong-goo’s pubescent daughter Hyo-jin as a potential victim of this plague (Kim Hwan-hee), it begins to appear more and more likely that something supernatural is afoot in the village, perhaps involving the Japanese man. There are hints that the man might be some sort of ghost, but then it appears that the real problem in Gokseong might involve demonic possession. Indeed, especially given the focus on Hyo-jin as a possible victim of this possession, The Wailing is quite often highly reminiscent of possession films such as The Exorcist (1973). Throughout the film, though, there is a great deal of uncertainty concerning just what is going on, as events seem to point first in one direction, then in another.
The multigeneric nature of The Wailing is one of the things that critics have most often noted about the film. Joshua Winning, for example, notes that the film combines “a horror story about human fallibility and a slapstick zombie-ghost-infection thriller that echoes the likes of The Exorcist (1973) but always feels original.” Similarly, Philip Brown describes The Wailing as an “ambitious yet wacko genre mash-up picture . . . an exorcism tale, a serial killer procedural, a quirky small town (or village) satire, a meditation on evil, a dissection of faith, a tragedy, and a comedy all at once. Maddeningly complex and viscerally entertaining, it’s all but guaranteed that you won’t see another movie quite like this all summer, or … you know … possibly ever.”
The Wailing is a very artfully made film in which the complex, twisting plot is supplementing by some compelling visuals that aid in the creation of atmosphere and even in conveying the thematic interests of the film. For example, some of the film’s most effective atmospheric shots include the driving rains that seem almost constantly to soak the area in an around Gokseong, increasing the sense of a beleaguered village. At the same time, these heavy rains are also realistic—drenching rainfall is quite common in Korea from June to September, as monsoons move across the peninsula. Meanwhile, some of the film’s most artistic shots involve scenes of driving through the mountainous countryside around Gokseong, thus combining remote nature with the iconic modern experience of driving very modern vehicles on very modern roadways. As such, these scenes of highways and driving highlight the clash between the modern and the traditional that is so central to the film. For example, Fig. 1 is one of several shots in the film that highlight the mountainous terrain of the region, which suggests a remoteness from modernity, but this terrain has, in fact, been penetrated by modernity through the building of modern roads, the twisting and turning nature of which rhymes with the nature of the plot of the film. Some of these shots, as in both Figs. 2 and 3, add greatly to the atmosphere of mystery that pervades the film, suggesting a combination of engineering and magic, while also creating visuals that certainly seem at home in a horror film like this one but that also might be very much at home in a noir crime film.
Importantly, these visuals do more than complement the texture of the film; they also suggest the texture of life in contemporary South Korea, a country whose modern elements are even more modern than in most parts of the world, yet one in which traditional elements remain strong as well, especially in remote areas such as Gokseong. South Korea, after all, is the home to electronics giants such as Samsung and LG, powerhouse components of modern global capitalism whose high-tech devices are ubiquitous in the country and around the world. Even a remote village such as Gokseong still sports many of the accoutrements of modern technology. All of the citizens of the village seem to have cell phones (Jong-goo’s Samsung phone is featured prominently), for example, and this remote mountain region seems to have excellent cell phone coverage. At the same time, Jong-goo drives a variety of modern vehicles, including a (Japanese) Yamaha motorcycle and (Korean) Hyundai cars; he also lives in a home with electricity and modern appliances (including a flat screen TV). But his home also sports largely traditional Korean furniture and his family still makes their own soy sauce, which they age in traditional earthen jars.
One of the hybrid aspects of South Korean society that is most crucial as background to The Wailing is the radical mixture of religious attitudes that inform this society. As a society that is in many ways ultra-modern, South Korea has a large number of citizens whose view of the world is entirely secular: over half of South Koreans profess to have no religion at all. Meanwhile, unusual for an Asian country, the religion with the most adherents is Christianity, with about 20% of South Koreans identifying themselves as Protestants and 8% as Catholics. Roughly 15% of South Koreans practice a Korean form of Buddhism, but quite ancient traditional religious practices still have their adherents as well, especially in remote regions and among older Koreans.
This unusual religious makeup is immediately indicated by the on-screen text (in Korean) that introduces the film as a sort of epigraph. In English translation, this epigraph reads “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’” Viewers who are not biblical scholars might at this point think that this epigraph might have been extracted from some sort of traditional Korean ghost story or folktale. But then the on-line text reveals the source of this passage to be Luke 24:37–39, from a scene in which the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples, reminding us both of the strong presence of Christianity in Korea and of the strong presence of the supernatural in Christianity. But this epigraph also serves another important function by adding to the interpretive confusion that lies at the heart of the film by setting up a crucial, but enigmatic late scene, as I will discuss below.
The protagonist of The Wailing, Jong-goo, is clearly aligned with the majority of South Koreans who are nonbelievers. Early in the film, as they prepare to interview the Japanese man for the first time, Jong-goo observes his partner and subordinate Oh Seong-bok (Son Gang-guk) wearing a Christian cross on a chain around his neck and reacts with derision. He also seems a bit skeptical of the fact that the translator Oh is bringing along to help in communication with the Japanese man, Yang I-sam (Kim Do-yoon), is not only Oh’s nephew but also a Catholic deacon who is studying to be a priest. It is similarly clear that Jong-goo is highly skeptical when his mother-in-law (played by Her Jin) suggests bringing in a traditional shaman to remove the evil that seems to be attacking his daughter, even though he reluctantly agrees (temporarily) to allow the shaman to do his work.
For most viewers, the descent of the sweet, almost angelic Hyo-jin into a ravening, foul-mouthed monster will be the central plot thread in this film that contains so many disparate elements. Comparisons with Linda Blair’s transformation in The Exorcist are inevitable, and the performance of Kim Hwan-hee holds up quite well to this comparison. Granted, Hyo-jin’s behavior is not quite as shockingly obscene as that of Blair’s Regan, though she does become extremely violent in her verbal abuse of her parents—and ultimately becomes murderous (as does Regan). Thus, while Hyo-jin’s condition might be less graphic in its presentation than is Regan’s, it is still an effective and unsettling motif in the film. Perhaps the biggest different between the possession subplot of The Wailing and that of The Exorcist, though, simply involves the fact that, in the attempt to end her possession by an exorcism ritual, Hyo-jin’s parents turn, not to the Catholic Church, but to a traditional Korean shaman (which might seem to Western viewers to make sense, but we should remember that Christianity has far more adherents in Korea than do traditional Korean folk religions). At the same time, the Catholic Church remains involved in the plot in the person of the deacon, though an actual priest who is consulted about Hyo-jin’s condition simply recommends that they trust the doctors at the local hospital.
The shaman, Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min) is one of the film’s most important and enigmatic characters. When he arrives, he seems more like a fairly youthful hipster than the aging sorcerer one might have expected. Then, he announces that the Japanese man is an evil spirit who has possessed Hyo-jin but seems confident that he can drive out the evil. After an initial (highly theatrical) exorcism ritual fails to do the trick, Il-gwang announces that this is the strongest evil he has ever encountered. He then prepares to carry out a more powerful exorcism, which becomes one of the film’s most striking scenes. Again, the ritual seems excessively performative, especially as Il-gwang is accompanied by an entire troupe of drummers and assistants. However, the ritual does seem to have some effect, causing Hyo-jin to writhe in agony. Meanwhile, the shaman’s performance is intercut with scenes of the Japanese man, who seems to be carrying out his own ritual, perhaps in response to the shaman. After five minutes of dancing, shouting, and animal sacrifice, Il-gwang begins driving spikes into a block of wood, which appears to have a powerful impact on both Hyo-jin and the Japanese man, as if the spikes are being driven into them. This seeming battle of good magic vs. evil magic is then cut short when Jong-goo can no longer stand to see his daughter suffer and intercedes, demanding that the performers leave at once.
We will never learn what might have happened had Jong-goo not interfered, something that will seem even more uncertain as events unfold. Among other things, a number of events in the film complicate our understanding of the relationship between the shaman and the Japanese man, including the fact that a third term enters their opposition in the form of a mysterious woman in white who seems to be lurking about the village. This woman, played by Chun Woo-hee, is unnamed in the film itself but identified in the credits as Moo-myung (which simply means “no name” in Korean). At first, she just seems to be simply wandering about, possibly suffering from some sort of mental illness, but it soon becomes increasingly clear that she might also have supernatural powers.
After the aborted exorcism, Jong-goo decides to employ a more secular strategy, which temporarily shifts the genre of the film once again. He takes Hyo-jin to the hospital for conventional medical treatment, then goes outside his official police capacity and rounds up a posse of vigilantes to go after the Japanese man directly. After weathering an apparent zombie attack outside the man’s cabin, the posse chases the Japanese man down a mountainside, eventually leading to his apparent death in a fall. Hyo-jin seems instantly improved, and the situation seems headed for a happy resolution, though there is an odd moment just after the death of the Japanese man when Il-gwang stares off into the mountains and announces that “the rat fell into the trap,” very much leaving open exactly to whom he is referring. Within minutes, we see the shaman driving hurriedly back to the village, while attempting (unsuccessfully) to get Jong-goo on the phone. When he arrives at the village, Il-Gwang has an encounter with the mysterious woman in white, who apparently causes him to vomit copious amounts of blood and other fluids, then to flee the village again.
Later, headed back to the village once again, the shaman finally gets Jong-goo on the phone; he announces that he initially misread the divination and that he now realizes that it is the mysterious woman who is the evil spirit. The Japanese man, he now claims, is a fellow shaman who was trying to save the village from the woman. For a time, then, the Japanese man appears to have been an innocent victim of a misguided mob. To the very end of the film, we can never be quite sure just who is who, and key late sequences supply information that probably raises more questions than it answers. For one thing, Jong-goo has an odd conversation with the mysterious woman, whose enigmatic statements and odd affect make it almost impossible to tell whether she is a force for good or for evil. There is, however, a fair amount of evidence (though not an entirely conclusive amount) that she is telling the truth when she informs him that the shaman and the Japanese man are actually working together to curse the village and that she is trying to stop them. Meanwhile, when he asked her why all of these horrible things are happening to Hyo-jin, she responds that it was “because her father has sinned” in killing the Japanese man. Jong-goo responds, frantically, that his daughter began showing symptoms well before the apparent death of the Japanese man, but this is not a film in which such ordinary logic necessarily holds sway. He accuses the woman of being the instigator of all the evil in the village, then rushes back to his family despite her warnings that he must not.
As for the shaman, he ends the film on an extremely enigmatic note. For one thing, as he rushes back to the village one last time, we note that his car is filled with a variety of artifacts, including a large statue of a sitting Buddha, with no explanation of why he would be carrying such an artifact, which would seem to have nothing to do with his role as a traditional shaman. When he arrives at the home of Jong-goo, he finds a bloody Hyo-jin sitting on the front porch, her actual condition unclear. When the shaman goes inside, he finds Jong-goo in a battered condition, possibly dying. Jong-goo’s wife and mother-in-law are apparently already dead, and the house in general has been wrecked. The implication seems to be that the possessed Hyo-jin has wrought all this damage. To make things even stranger, Il-gwang then photographs the bodies, much in the mode of the Japanese man, then returns to his car, where we find that he has an entire box of such photos in the back of his car. This photography motif would appear to align the shaman with the Japanese man—except that there is still room to argue that perhaps the shaman is actually employing this motif as a way of battling against the photography of the Japanese man. At the same time, the role of that photography remains unclear as well, though the figure of the Japanese tourist snapping copious numbers of photographs is a well-known stereotype.
Meanwhile, the story of the Japanese man has, by this time, taken a truly bizarre additional turn. Surprisingly, we see him once again alive (though battered) when the deacon goes back to the cabin, rosary and sickle in hand, suspecting that the Japanese man is still alive and clearly planning to kill him once and for all. He locates the man in a strange hellish subterranean lair, and their subsequent confrontation is perhaps the strangest scene in the entire film. When the deacon demands that the Japanese man reveal his true identity, the man merely says that the deacon believes him to be the devil, so he will always be the devil to him. There may be a vague echo here of Christ’s famous reply to Pilate, when asked whether he is the King of the Jews, that Pilate has already said he is. But the Japanese man’s echo of Christ will soon become much more overt. He tells the deacon to touch him to verify his physical reality, telling him that “a ghost does not have flesh and bones, and you see I have both.” This statement might go unnoticed, except for the fact that it is a direct repetition of the scene from the Gospel According to Luke that provided the epigraph at the beginning of the film. This suggested parallel between the Japanese man and Christ seems truly inexplicable, until one recalls that it is Christian tradition that, when the Antichrist, a figure essentially possessed by Satan himself, appears on earth, he will impersonate the true Christ. This possibly devilish view of the Japanese man is then reinforced when the man takes out his trusty Minolta (a well-known Japanese brand) and begins photographing the deacon, progressively transforming his appearance into that of a devil, complete with orange eyes, reddening skin, and sprouting horns. Fully transmogrified, he tells the deacon, again echoing Christ, “You can see it is I,” while we also notice a hole in one of his palms, resembling one of the wounds of the crucified Christ.
It seems reasonable to conclude at this point that the Japanese man is the Antichrist and that, therefore, the mysterious woman is to be believed in her explanation of the film’s events. But so what? Given the extremely vexed historical relationship between Japan and Korea, it seems crucial at this point to attempt to tease out a further meaning in the fact that the film suggests a Japanese man as the Antichrist. Korea was under colonial rule by the Empire of Japan from 1910 to 1945. Japanese rule in Korea was particularly oppressive and was informed by a strong effort to eradicate Korean cultural traditions under a program of Japanization that was intended to make Korea easier to exploit as an extension of Japanese industrial power. The name of “Korea” was even changed to “Chōsen” to help effect this transformation of the country. During World War II, the repression and exploitation of Korea by Japan became particularly egregious. Some Koreans, for example, were subjected to gruesome medical experiments along the lines of those infamously devised by Japan’s German Nazi allies. While exact numbers are difficult to determine (largely because that information was hidden by the Japanese during their rule), it appears that over 5 million Korean men were conscripted into forced labor to support the Japanese war effort, many of whom were brought to Japan itself, often working there under dangerous and unhealthy conditions. In addition, many Korean women and girls (probably tens of thousands, and possibly even hundreds of thousands) were conscripted as “comfort women” and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during the war.
Given this traumatic history, it is no surprise that there is still a considerable amount of resentment toward Japan among Koreans today, even though modern-day Japan has repudiated the policies of the Empire. As a result, it is impossible to understand a character such as the Japanese man in The Wailing without taking the legacy of Japan-Korea relations into account. It is clear, for example, that the Japanese man is automatically regarded with suspicion and animosity as soon as he arrives in Gokseong, partly because he is a stranger, but especially because he is Japanese. As the film begins, rumors about the Japanese man are already circulating freely in the village, including one suggestion that he has raped a local woman, a suggestion that clearly links back to memories of the repeated rapes of Korean comfort women by Japanese soldiers.
The various twists and turns taken by the plot with regard to our assessment of the Japanese man can, among other things, be taken as an indication of ongoing controversies in Korea about just how Japan should be regarded today. That the Japanese man seems to become a Satan-possessed Antichrist at the end of the film might, of course, be taken as a final indictment of the Japanese for the abuse suffered by Koreans at the hands of the Empire of Japan. At the same time, the film also leaves open the possibility of taking this final scene involving the Japanese man as a commentary on the ongoing demonization of the Japanese by some in Korea, so that the Japanese continue to seem demonic to many Koreans, despite the fact that few people in Japan today were even alive in 1945 (and that few of the Korean forced laborers or comfort women of World War II are alive today).
Ultimately, the enigmatic nature of this film seems highly appropriate as a commentary on a Korean society that is still struggling to come to terms with its colonial past and with its present status as a major player in global late capitalism (and global popular culture) but as a society riven by deep cultural and economic divides. Indeed, Hisup Shin has suggested that Fredric Jameson’s notion of “national allegory”—in which Jameson envisions many works of “third-world” culture as allegorizations of the national cultural and historical identities of postcolonial nations—applies well to this film. For Shin, “the term ‘national allegory’ is quite apposite in capturing the way the film carefully layers all the monstrous, supernatural visual signs of cultural encounters and tensions into a symbolic mise-en-scène of memorialization recalling traumatic chapters in the nation’s past” (95). It is in this sense that one reviewer comments that “weighed down by a bloody history of Japanese colonialism, civil war and partition, the scars of the Korean psyche find their way into Na’s film, whether it’s the horror of people being murdered by their own families or the exorcism that serves as its dramatic centerpiece—a likely metaphor for the need to purge ghosts of the past” (Lee).
If one reads The Wailing as a commentary on Korea’s complex history (which would be complicated still further by the portioning of the country into North and South Korea in the wake of the Korean War of 1950–1953), then it should come as no surprise that this film is so complex and multi-faceted. At the same time, the fact that this film can comment on real-world history through of a collection of outrageous horror film images and motifs suggests the power of horror film as socio-political commentary. Finally, the fact that The Wailing is so well made and so entertaining can be taken as an indicator of the current state of the Korean film industry, one of the most successful in the world.
Brown, Philip. “‘The Wailing’ Review: Terrifying and Oddly Hilarious Demonic Horror.” The Bonus View, 9 June 2016, https://www.highdefdigest.com/blog/wailing-movie-review/. Accessed 12 November 2021.
Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Pretexts, vol.3, nos. 1–2, 1991, pp. 82–104. (Originally published in Social Text, vol. 15, in 1986.)
Lee, Maggie. “Cannes Film Review: The Wailing.” Variety, 19 May 2016, variety.com/2016/film/reviews/ the-wailing-review-goksung-cannes-1201776287/, Accessed 11 November 2021.
Shin, Hisup. “Monstrous National Allegory: The Making of Monstrous Otherness in Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 72, nos. 3–4, fall/winter 2020, pp. 90–101.
Winning, Joshua. “The Wailing (2016).” Winning. Words., 15 Jan. 2017, joshuawinning.com/2017/01 /15/the-wailing-2016/, Accessed 11 November 2021.