Na Hong-jin’s third feature, The Wailing, is an eerie, sprawling, genre-defying film about a mysterious event that descends upon a rural Korean town. We experience this event largely from the perspective of Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a local cop, who is tasked with investigating, explaining and finally expulging it from the local community and landscape. At first, it appears that this event is a plague, but it gradually emerges that it is something more supernatural – a demonic presence, perhaps, that is associated with the arrival of a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) in the town. So oblique and opaque is the overarching structure and import of this event, however, that the film has generated a fair amount of online speculation as to the significance of many of its key scenes, as well as the ambiguous closing act, whose meaning is far from clear, as is the nature of the event itself.
In part, that’s because The Wailing combines a variety of different genres in quite a baroque and picaresque manner. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, it encompasses a forensic investigation, a police procedural, a supernatural thriller, and even a workplace comedy, since Jong cuts quite a comic figure, and is so ill-equipped to handle the event descending on his local community that his efforts to contend with it often verge on slapstick and screwball. With a multitude of other peripheral characters, and frequent shifts in register, The Wailing often feels like the pilot for a television series rather than a self-contained film, bursting with a series of tonal and narrative possibilities that it never fully explores, all centred on the loveable detective. Sure, he may not seem all that competent, effective, or brave, but for that very reason he’s just the kind of character that you could easily invest a whole season in watching, since he often seems to be a spectator to the events unfolding as much as the audience. Between all these different tones and registers, The Wailing also shifts, more broadly, between scenes of frank naturalism, typically set against the verdant Korean countryside, and a more expressionistic approach, during which this landscape is intensified by blue-green filters into a more irrealistic backdrop to the event as it proceeds.
That picaresque discontinuity is reiterated by the event itself, which takes on a very different etiology from American films about small communities besieged by external forces. This difference is immediately clear in the investigation itself, since clues don’t seem to emerge in a procedural way – or at least aren’t capable of being contained by procedure – as the event starts to infiltrate the investigative process itself. With no critical distance to fully comprehend it, the transmission of the event seems quite piecemeal and variable, a rich and baroque variety of happenings rather than a single or focused entity that can be glimpsed in its entirety at any one time. Sometimes it seems to be an illness, sometimes it seems to be the work of an individual killer, and sometimes it seems to be a form of possession, causing such a diverse variety of phenomena – suicides, arson, murder, animalism – that it eventually seeps into the eerie ambience of the film itself, and starts to affect the weather of the town, producing sudden storms even when there are no clouds in the sky. The only clear common denominator is that people affected by the event develop skin rashes, but even then there is no clear sense of where this comes from, since the event seems to have seeped into the world so thoroughly that no single point of contact between skin and world is enough to explain exactly how and why these victims come to be infected.
Since this event is so picaresque, any effort to expunge it is destined to be equally heterogeneous as well. After a while, the townsfolk gradually come to attribute the event to a demon, leading Jong to call in a professional exorcist to try and expel it from their community, as well as from his daughter, Hyo-jin (Hawn-hee Kim), who is one of the first to be infected. While the arrival of this exorcist, Il-gwang (Jung-min Hwang), might be cloaked in horror, his exorcism itself is as picaresque as the event that it is designed to remove – so picaresque, in fact, that it becomes yet another facet of the event, leading to a final twist in which it is suggested that Il-gwang might have been working at the behest of the demon all along. Replicating the sprawling length and heterogeneous tone of the film in miniature, this exorcism sequence takes about ten minutes, and looks more like a dance party than a supernatural ceremony, as Il-gwang dances and sings in a multicoloured gown, and Na alternates between absurdity and horror in the most tonally discontinuous sequence so far.
With such a varied tone, the key moments in The Wailing tend to occur in the pivots between scenes, which are generally accompanied by a figure or figures watching the events unfold in the far distance, as if from a different world. These are the only subject positions that seem to be truly outside the event, yet we are unable to approach them without entering the ambit of the event, which seems capable of insinuating itself into everything that the camera experiences at close range. Rather than take us outside the event per se, these distant observers suggest a hypothetical space beyond the event, a space that is gradually associated with the presence of the Japanese man, who Jong comes to regard as the main demon and instigator of the event. Like The Handmaiden, The Wailing therefore draws upon the Gothic presence of Japan in South Korea, and the ongoing legacy of Japanese colonialism, as a story emerges around this Japanese man that locates the origin of the event in the distant past. Years ago, the story goes, this man abused a Korean woman by the banks of the local river, causing her to go mad the same day, and instigating a demonic presence that would become as embedded in the local landscape as the river running through it. With this parable of colonialism as its basis, the event has presumably spread since that time, but has only become visible in its full destructiveness in the present.
Korean horror films often have a taste for creatures that mutate and shift through a variety of different forms. Here, that mutation is attributed to the Japanese substrate of the landscape, with Na suggesting that the full horrors of colonialism can’t properly be known until longer after the original moment of colonialism is past. Rather than live colonialism, or dead colonialism, it is undead colonialism that reveals the true impact of colonising peoples here – the way in which the colonial agenda lingers over communities long after its power might be presumed to have expired or evaporated. As a presence that disperses time and space, and defies any clear sense of an event or happening that is fully anchored in the present, the Japanese legacy in Korea thus becomes synonymous with the discontinuity principle that drives The Wailing as a whole. Just as every iteration of the event starts with skin infection, so every iteration of the event ends with local Koreans turning against themselves and destroying their own bodies, literally rendering themselves discontinuous at the behest of this Japanese colonial entity that robs their own heritage of continuity as well.
Like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, then, The Wailing moves away from the New Korean Extremity pioneered by Park Chan-wook to adopt a style that is both more naturalistic and more uncanny. In both films, the attempt to formulate a South Korean naturalism only emphasises the presence of something alien that is inextricably embedded in the landscape, along with a pervasive sense that the South Korean landscape is not its own. In Burning, that stems from the North Korean border, while in The Wailing it stems from the legacy of Japan, but both are part of the same historical matrix, as is Park’s more expressionist style, which started with his efforts to bring the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea to the screen. In their muted and uncanny naturalism, however, Lee and Na suggest something more intractable about South Korea’s relation with the surrounding region, or something more intractable about the way in which the surrounding region has made its way into the South Korean landscape, which plays a particularly prominent role in both of those films, as opposed to the more urban and noir-centric sensibility typical of the New Korean Extremity.
In The Wailing, this is particularly clear in Na’s depiction of the forests around the town, whose reticulated surfaces also become synonymous with the discontinuity principle of the film, and the rapid pivots from one tone and vista to the next. As Na cuts in and around one hidden fold, valley and gully after another, he suggests the sheer insinuation of the Japanese presence, the way it has managed to percolate into the quietest recesses of the landscape, and so maintain a residual and inextricable presence in South Korea after all these years. For all the spectacle of the film, the eeriest moment tend to occur in the midst of complicated terrain and dense foliage, often obscured by rain or murk, much as the figures who observe the action from a distance are nearly always situated against or seen through leaves and trees. With the Japanese presence so embedded in the landscape, it is as if nature itself has turned against the town, meaning that all that the Japanese man really needs to do is embed himself in the web of Japanese associations that are already there in the landscape, resulting in an associative and lateral narrative structure for the film in turn.
More eerily, this suggests that the Japanese man has a foothold in the community’s hearts and minds before they are fully aware of it, especially as it’s unclear when exactly he arrived, or when his abuse of the Korean woman by the river took place. For that reason, The Wailing unfolds in the pluperfect tense – the Japanese man simply had always been there – which offsets the police procedure, and its linear connections between past and present tense. As a result, the man doesn’t create the event so much as embed himself in it, just as the event itself is ultimately a self-sustaining event, which is perhaps why the film struggles to find closure in its final half hour. In a sense, Na almost succeeds too much, embedding the event so deeply in the community that it is not attributable to one figure any more, and is instead distributed across the Japanese man, the woman he abused, the exorcist, and the detective’s daughter. That in itself wouldn’t be an issue, but in his efforts to come to terms with the figurative limit of represent an event that has lost its discrete eventfulness, Na settles into a monotonal grimness that offsets the picaresque atonality that makes the rest of the film so compelling. You might say that in the end Na is therefore also defeated by the event, as the Japanese colonial presence produces an aporia in his own work – not unlike the absence at the heart of Burning – and the film finally embraces the gaps to South Korea self-imaging the New Korean Extremity was so desperate to keep out.