A SHAMAN, PRIEST AND A GHOST WALK INTO A BAR…
In the small town of Gokseong, a bumbling police officer, Jong Goo (Kwak Do Won) is called to the scene of a string of violent murders. At first the police suspect the victims were poisoned by wild mushrooms as their bodies are covered with boils and sores. However, Jong Goo meets a mysterious woman named Moo Myung (meaning no name in Korean) (Chun Woo Hee) who tells him that the murders involve the Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) who lives alone in the woods.
As Jong Goo enlists the help of another officer and a local priest (Kim Do Yoon) who speaks Japanese, they investigate the stranger’s home in the woods and shocked to discover that he has pictures of the infected and murdered residents in the town and even some of their personal belongings. The house’s guard dog breaks free and begins to attack the intruders and the stranger arrives soon after to calm his dog down.
Despite their suspicions the group is unable to find proof that the stranger committed the crimes and leave but on the car ride back to the village, the other office informs Jong Goo that he found his daughter’s, Hyo Jin (Kim Hwan Hee), shoe there. Hyo Jin begins to act erratically and display the same symptoms as the other sick residents. At his mother-in-law’s behest, he hires a shaman, Il Gwang (Hwang Jung Min), to exorcise whatever is ailing Hyo Jin.
The Wailing was the hit horror movie of this past summer. Director Na Hong Jin really understands the horror genre. The movie has a good mix of the gruesome as well as classic horror. The movie is part zombie and part ghost movie. There are themes of Christianity and shamanism. Although a lot of audiences are savvy, he is quite patient about knowing which beats to exploit in the film’s pacing to make you jump out of your seat.
I think what I was most intrigued by was the setting of the small town. In a small town, there are people who are closed-minded. In a small town, where you know everyone by name, the foreign stranger who doesn’t speak the same language can be treated with suspicion. When there is a series of unexplainable incidents and panic sets in, the only recourse you have is to gather your friends to hunt down the person who suspect is responsible without proof. Even though it was not clear to viewers as to who the responsible party might be, the fear and panic felt by the villagers felt palpable as they witnessed their neighbors going mad and dying one after another.
While watching the movie, I’ll admit that there were a number of times I felt uncomfortable about the representation of the Japanese stranger. As you may or may not know, the relationship between Korea and Japan can be tense especially if the subject of the Japanese occupation comes up. I think racism and xenophobia can flourish in an environment such as the one I describe above. When people are closed-minded and ruled by fear, it leads them to look for what is unlike the other. I don’t think the film itself is racist but rather making a point about how fear can lead people to make irrational and rash decisions. Jun Kunimura is quite a famous Japanese actor and while sitting in the theater, I kept trying to remember where I last saw him. He’s no stranger to horror films as he was in the Japanese horror film, Audition, and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I would love to pick his brain about his thoughts regarding playing this character and how the villagers mark him as a threat. I found the sociological factors regarding the villagers’ feelings towards him very realistic and complex.
Also, adding to the complex vibe of the film is the cinematography. The sets are quite lush but the shots are bleak. Scenes such as the cacophonous exorcism by the shaman are typically vibrant with color but the lack of contrast in the shot brings alive this feeling of suffocation that’s felt by the villager. Though there are plenty of scenes that take place during the day, it feels like the skies are filled with a general overcast weather. Even the occasional beam of sunlight can’t be trusted.
Though it seems to get the mood right and manages to scare people, my biggest gripe about the film is a major one. It tries to do too much. Is it a horror film about exorcising demons? Is it ghost movie? Is it a zombie movie? Is it about xenophobia? There is so much misdirect, which I had expected, and there is a long expository scene in which “evil” is described but I walk out wondering what the takeaway was. My friend and I literally sat in the car afterwards coming up with different theories about the ending because we were perplexed.
Going by the box office numbers, it makes the film looks like the runaway hit but the same audiences returned to the theater multiple times to understand the ending. I’ve pondered about it. Read other reviews. Read other theories. Come up with my own theories. Ultimately, I’ve settled on this. The movie spends a lot of time getting us into the mood and sympathizing with the characters but if the ending is so confusing that it disrupts that mood, then the film hasn’t done a good job. For example, as perplexing as the movie, Memento, is with all its details, I never lost my concern for the main character. Once you lose that connection, the film loses an emotional connection with the audience and that’s a shame.