Horror Internationale surveys the globe looking for compelling horror.
hen Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won Best Picture (and Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature) at the Academy Awards, it represented both a breakthrough and a culmination. It was a breakthrough in the sense that no foreign-language film had ever taken the top prize and a culmination in that it conferred top honors on a film from South Korea, a country whose film industry has been in a commercial and artistic boom period for more than two decades. That may not always have been apparent to the average North American moviegoer, despite the occasional crossover success of films such as The Handmaiden and Bong’s The Host. Those made curious about what else the country had to offer by Parasite’s victory found themselves with plenty to explore. (One way to start a checklist: The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife followed the win with a great Twitter thread.) Some rightly noted that it’s not really fair to think of South Korean film as monolithic. Burning and Train to Busan, for instance, don’t have a lot in common. But it’s also true that the recent ascent of South Korean cinema has been as heavily driven by genre fare as arthouse offerings. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart.
Case in point: The Wailing, a 2016 film that found an appreciative American audience during a limited theatrical run and an even wider one via home video and streaming services such as Shudder (where it can currently be found). Directed by Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea), it begins a meditative mystery set in motion by a mysterious death and ends as, well, that’s better left unspoiled. Suffice to say that at various points it morphs into an exorcism story, a study in comparative religion, a zombie movie (briefly) and ultimately the waking nightmare for a protagonist who spends much of the first film experiencing restless nights filled with dark fantasies. By the end of its two-and-a-half-hours, The Wailing has cast a hard-to-shake spell likely to invade viewers’ dreams as well.
The Wailing begins as what looks like a conscious nod to Bong’s Memories of Murder. A 2003 film scheduled for a re-release later this year, the fact-based thriller revisits the story of South Korea’s first recorded serial killer, a man who killed 10 victims in the province of Hwaseong between 1986 and 1991. (The murders went unsolved until the killer’s confession last year.) The Wailing echoes the movie’s remote, rural setting and its focus on small-town cops who find themselves in way over their heads by unexpected developments.
Here that’s primarily Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a slow-moving, teddy bear-shaped police sergeant who faces a threat far more nebulous than a serial killer. Before Jong-goo has time to finish his breakfast with his wife (Jang So-yeon) and adoring daughter Hyo-Jin (Kim Hwan-hee) — and before the opening credits have even finished — he learns of the apparent murder of a local ginseng farmer’s wife. But when he arrives at the scene, he finds a bloody mess -- the corpses of both the wife and the husband -- and the apparent murderer sitting in a stupor, staring into space as the rain pours down on him.
What could have led to this apparently senseless act? That’s both the real mystery Jong-goo has to solve and the bigger question at the heart of the film, which reveals itself as nothing less than an inquiry into the nature of evil — one that produces no comforting answers.
Science produces one, weak explanation: The killer was high on some hallucinogenic mushrooms that grow in the area, mushrooms we soon learn many have consumed with no such murderous results. A mysterious woman in white (Chun Woo-hee) suggests another possibility: Maybe blame can be traced to the Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura, a veteran of Kill Bill, Shin Godzilla and multiple Takashi Miike films) who has moved into a cabin down by the lake. After all, there are all sorts of strange stories about him, stories in which he has been seen devouring the raw flesh of a dead deer and worse. This might not be much to go on, but it’s all Jong-goo has. Besides, the stranger has started to turn up in his dreams with glowing red eyes. That must mean something, right? And what of the snarling dog that sits outside the stranger’s cabin? And what about the weird shrine they find within it, a collection of photographs and tokens taken from past victims that includes one of Hyo-Jin’s sneakers?
In these early scenes, Na underscores the grim subject matter with foreboding images of the rain-soaked countryside but cuts it with humor. For all his good intentions, Jong-goo doesn’t have the first idea of how to approach a case this far removed from the troubles usually visited on his sleepy corner of the world. His team — which extends to include a none-too-bright deputy and a priest-in-training with some knowledge of Japanese — doesn’t help much either. Even in the midst of the dark story, they make an endearingly bumbling team until their investigation of the stranger turns from vague suspicion to seemingly misguided harassment. Yet even though the set-up seems to suggest The Wailing will turn into a pretty easy parable about the dangers of xenophobia and rushing to judgment, the story soon gets even more complicated, hitting tangles that snuff out the humor and let terror take its place.
Not long after finding Hyo-Jin’s sneaker, Jong-goo’s daughter begins behaving strangely. Then that strange behavior takes an even darker turn, leading to the desperate measure of bringing in a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) steeped in folk rituals to purge evil spirits. His attempt — part exorcism, part musical performance — gives the film an extraordinary set piece but doesn’t explain away what’s going on. Neither does the priest that Jong-goo consults or any of the theories floating around the province. Maybe nothing can.
Speaking to The Playlist, Na revealed that the film had roots in the deaths of several close friends, none of natural causes.
“Funerals usually last three days in Korea,” he said, “and all throughout those days, I pondered about their deaths. The questions raised during those days coincided with the things I have always been wondering while making my previous films. The question was, ‘Why did they have to be victims of all people’? I already had the answers for the ‘how.’ What I had to find out was the ‘why.’ So I began to meet and talk to the clergy of various religions.”
Na’s film reflects a country that has no agreed-upon answers to these sorts of questions. Over half the residents of South Korea claim no religious affiliation. Of those who do, Christians make up more than a quarter and Buddhists around 15 percent. But neither Christianity nor Buddhism are native to Korea, and the presence of the shaman suggests the possibility that older systems of belief might never have fully faded, that in the absence of other faiths might be primed to make a return. Na begins the film with a quote from the Bible and has said if he was not Christian, he would have made a very different film. But it’s restlessness and doubt, not surety, that inform The Wailing. A faithless husband, Jong-goo fears his own sins have been visited upon the innocent Hyo-Jin. But that answer seems too simple. She ultimately seems to have been a random victim of the malignant forces infecting his town or maybe one cruelly selected because of her innocence.
Na floats these questions within a film in which the atmosphere thickens with dread as it progresses. Even the long, beautiful establishing shots of the Korean countryside start to take on a foreboding quality. The deliberate pace and Na’s careful, controlled camerawork contribute to a feeling that no matter what Jong-goo does, it won’t be enough, and that even someone without his professional shortcomings would be ill-equipped to stand up to whatever evil has unexpectedly come calling. Na makes a strange, shifting tale set in a particular time and place feel both universal and jarringly familiar. With The Wailing, Na captures the feeling of confronting the unknowable. Who can explain the persistence of evil or why it so often touches innocent lives? Even when Jong-goo stares into the face of his enemy, he finds himself clouded with confusion. His involuntary journey of discovery only unearths more disturbing questions, sending him deeper into confusion and toward a horror deeper than mere scares.
Keith Phipps writes about movies and other aspects of pop culture. You can find his work in such publications as The Ringer, Mel Magazine, Vulture, TV Guide, Decider, Polygon and The Verge. Keith also co-hosts the podcast The Next Picture Show and lives in Chicago with his wife and child. His all-time favorite horror film is Dawn of the Dead but he’s still baffled by the moment when the biker decides to use the blood pressure machine in the middle of the zombie attack. Follow him on Twitter at @kphipps3000.