Eastern Mythology Meets Western Horror in ‘The Wailing’

“The Wailing,” written and directed by Na Hong-jin, was a huge hit in South Korea when it was originally released in May 2016. For the few Western audience members who saw the film, it became an instant cult classic; no Hollywood studio would have had the knowledge or the nerve to put its horrifying and fascinating depiction of Asian mythology on screen. As American horror continues to churn out uninspired remakes and sequels, many of which are based on Asian horror movies (“The Ring,” “The Grudge,” etc.), horror and foreign film enthusiasts have turned to the East for their dose of scares. However, “The Wailing” is interesting because it combines Eastern mythology with archetypal Western horror tropes to create a truly unsettling yet more accessible experience. Viewers will notice plenty of obvious nods to the infamous “The Exorcist” while still appreciating the film’s wealth of unfamiliar mythos and culture. Now “The Wailing” is available on Netflix. Proceed with caution.

“The Wailing” begins with a verse from the book of Luke in which Jesus asks his followers: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.″ The entire film is littered with religious and cultural references, along with traditional folklore regarding spirits, demons, shamans, rituals, and the possessed. It blends and associates all of them in a way that both the viewer and the protagonist, Jong-goo, have no idea what or who to believe, if we can even trust anything or anyone at all. Jong-goo is a police officer and a doting father who halfheartedly serves his small town in the mountains of South Korea that is plagued by perennial thunderstorms. It is evident that he and the police force have little experience with serious crimes, let alone the supernatural. In this case, the supernatural comes in the form of a zombifying disease, a horror trope adopted from the West. This disease causes the infected (or possessed?) to develop severe rashes over their whole body and express extreme antagonism toward anyone in their proximity, particularly those closest to them. Several cases throughout the rural town reveal the aftermath of unspeakable acts of violence inflicted on their own families. As these horrifying incidents pile up, the movie turns into a mystery as the faint-hearted but observant Jong-goo eventually tries to find the source of the disease when its symptoms begin to appear in his increasingly malicious daughter. Ghost stories and superstitions fueled by fear and xenophobia begin to spread as all signs point to a Japanese man who recently moved into a remote cabin in the outskirts of the town.

At 156 minutes long, “The Wailing” is a horror epic, which is not a phrase you hear every day. Despite its daunting runtime, Na allegedly cut out a considerable amount of the film to make the story as cryptic and unpredictable as possible; the film is in fact quite disorienting in more ways than one. However, although its confusing and hermetic story may be frustrating for some, obsessing over the plot is beside the point. In this case, knowing what happens is secondary to knowing how the film makes you feel and why it makes you feel that way. For “The Wailing,” Na cleverly takes advantage of his final cut’s lack of exposition and repeatedly plays with expectations in order to turn the audience on its head. Jong-goo and, more importantly, the viewer are perpetually left in the dark as the initially passive Jong-goo is forced to make desperate decisions that make him a fascinating character to study. And if horror movies are good at one thing, it’s exposing humanity at its most defeated and macabre. During these moments of desperation is when suspicions begin to arise and the supernatural becomes more credible. But unlike the commonly frustrating decisions made by characters in low-brow horror movies, e.g. checking the closet to see if anyone’s in there or running into the basement to hide, Jong-goo’s actions are justified and define his character. Empathizing with Jong-goo is actually quite easy, considering the fact that the viewer is forced to confront pure evil alongside him. If you have ever wondered what pure evil looks like, look no further than witnessing the sanctuary of the home tearing down from the inside as Jong-goo’s family falls apart.

“The Wailing” dodges the use of cheap thrills and jump scares and instead relies on atmospheric direction, beautiful cinematography, impeccable production/costume design and makeup, and stellar acting to achieve its visceral impact. Beyond just scaring me, however, this movie left me heartbroken. Although its sounds and images were hellaciously unsettling, it was the story’s characters and what they experience that was truly upsetting and unforgettable. Most horror movies, especially the ones worth watching, are morality tales and are often allegorical. “The Wailing,” on the other hand, is an unforgiving experience. Any moral underpinnings, at least for this particular viewer, were left unclear. But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps that’s what makes the movie so traumatizing. Perhaps evil just ensnares anyone that takes its bait.

Image courtesy of wikipedia

Shane Jung

Shane Jung '22 is planning on majoring in film studies and minoring in math or philosophy. He writes biweekly movie reviews in the Arts section.

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