The Wailing, the third feature film from writer-director Na Hong-jin, begins with a call to a murder scene, not treated urgently. Sergeant Jun Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) eats breakfast before heading out—his mother-in-law insists—and the scene he later finds is more out of the ordinary than he had anticipated: both a woman and her husband have been killed, and the killer, who has been caught, seems to be a sort of zombie—he is in a catatonic state, his skin is blackened and covered in boils, and his are eyes pale, almost completely white. This case is the first of many that befall the quiet village of Goksung (the movie’s Korean title) at the hands of such zombielike people.
A part of me, early on in my first viewing, thought I was going into another zombie movie. I trusted Na, who has started his career strong with The Chaser (2009) and The Yellow Sea (2011), would have made a first-rate zombie movie, but still, the thought was disappointing. Only a few months earlier Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan surprised and delighted me, showing that an inspired and engaging zombie movie could still be made—by a Korean director no less—but still, I had expected Na to create something more ambitious, superior to what the genre allows for. Before long though, the “zombies” prove not to be the monsters we’re familiar with. They lumber and crave flesh, but, in a key difference, their bites aren’t contagious. If I had expected an outbreak followed by a struggle for survival, humans against undead mass, it never came. Indeed, rather than add a formulaic or tired element to the movie, these creatures make it more ominous, less predictable. If they’re not zombies, we ask ourselves, what are they? If a contagion didn’t make them this way, what did?
The Wailing takes its time answering this question. Na avoids explication and also draws from many genres—not only zombie movies, but police procedurals, supernatural horror stories, disease outbreak movies, and even buddy cop comedies. The result is that we aren’t prepared to assume the story will follow a familiar route. Mysterious events continue to arise, and we cannot rely on the conventions of any genre to make sense of them or anticipate what comes next.
We in effect work to make sense of the story alongside Jong-gu. Rumors spread that a Japanese man who recently moved to Goksung is a ghost and the source of its disorder. The notion at first sounds like something to condescend to—the superstitious and prejudiced thinking of country folk—but evidence accumulates in its favor. A hunter claims to have seen the Japanese man in his demonic form, and Jong-gu and his partner, along with his partner’s nephew, who can interpret Japanese, investigate. They break in to his home, and what they find is chilling: one room is a sort of folk-religion ritual space, containing countless candles, horned animal skulls, a pair of old black-and-white portraits, and a tangle of ropes tied along the ceiling. In another room, photographs of people cover the walls, including the people who have become the zombielike creatures, in the different stages of their transformation. In addition, they find a child’s sneaker. Written inside is the name Jun Hyo-jin—Jong-gu’s daughter.
This discovery of this shoe leads to one of the movie’s most haunting sequences. (Praise is due to the prepubescent Kim Hwan-hee, who plays Hyo-jin with remarkable conviction and range.) After returning home, Jong-gu asks Hyo-jin about the Japanese man. She is watching TV and acts aloof with him—suspiciously so, but in no way unusual for a child in front of a TV. She denies the shoe is hers, but she does say that she has met the Japanese man. She won’t say more though, and Jong-gu pushes her hard for more information. It’s not surprising that she gets angry with him, but what is surprising is the adultness of her anger. “What is so important?” she asks. “I said, what is so important?” Her rage building, she asks once again, “What is so damn important?” And then jutting her chin in her father’s face, she screams, “What the hell is so damned important!” and finally, she walks off, quietly adding, “You don’t even know what’s important. Stop grilling me, goddamn it.”
What makes this sequence so potent is that we don’t know how to account for her behavior. Just as those creatures aren’t quite zombies, it isn’t clear whether we can describe Hyo-jin as “possessed.” Her symptoms—in addition to the rage, she has night terrors, a ravenous appetite for fish, and boils along her legs—are a far cry from Regan’s in The Exorcist. Indeed, though surely something supernatural has afflicted her, we can still imagine that her condition could be understood in medical terms. What Na is doing though is not relishing in the ambiguity (is she infected or possessed?)—it’d be wrong not to favor possession—but tightening the gap between the material and the spiritual. In other words, he is portraying a spiritual affliction in a way that resonates with our modern way of seeing.
The effect is that Na has adapted the style of a traditional ghost story to today’s world. A supernatural account of the movie’s events are treated with rational skepticism, and even after accepting spirits as real, we don’t have a clear understanding of what they or how to fight them. Are they Christian? Pagan? Buddhist? And who can the people of Goksung turn to to guide them? (Jong-gu sees a priest, but he has no help to offer.) There’s no spiritual authority to bring clarity, to tell them of a curse concerning an appetite for fish and boils, to explain the connection between a spirit and a victim’s clothing. Outsiders come to their village, but how do the people know whether to trust them—whether a shaman’s ritual helps or hurts, whether the Japanese man is good or bad, who a mysterious woman in white is?
Some of these questions will find answers by the movie’s end, but others will remain mysterious. Having seen The Wailing three times now, I still am not sure which questions I will eventually understand and which ones can’t be understood. This is a point of frustration honestly—I’d rather let the movie captivate me than try to solve it—but the mystery comes with one of Na’s goals. In an interview, he says he wanted to make a movie that reflects his “feelings on the current climate of society.” It is a society that has moved away from religion and spiritual tradition, and, without nostalgia, he shows a cost that comes with modernization. Through Jong-gu, he shows us our vulnerability to horrors outside our control; the undefined dread or terror we may face without a dogma to make sense of these horrors; and the possibility of our best efforts coming up short, leaving us the victims of merciless disaster.