So here’s yet another South Korean horror film. This was a commercial and a critical success both within its country of origin and internationally. It was made by a director who is unknown to us, Na Hong-jin, but he has earned some plaudits. Unfortunately while there’s no doubt that it is very well made, both my wife and myself were frustrated by how little sense the story seems to make.
Jong-goo is a police officer living in a town in a rural area which is being afflicted by a strange disease. In each case, the affected person gets an ugly rash, experiences a change in personality and then becomes violent, murdering nearby family members. A mysterious woman in white tells him that this is the work of a reclusive Japanese man who lives on the nearby mountain. When he goes there with some companions, including a young Christian deacon, they discover a shrine there with photographs of those who have fallen victim to the disease but are too shocked to do anything. He gets desperate when his own daughter shows symptoms of the rash. His family brings in a shaman who performs a dramatic exorcism ritual. He himself becomes convinced that he has to kill the Japanese man in order to put a stop to this crisis.
The production standards for The Wailing are top notch with great photography and some excellent acting. Individual scenes are dramatic and memorable, keeping you engrossed despite the excessively long running time. It was very disturbing to watch the little girl behave like a gluttonous man and I felt sorry for the young actress who had to play that role. You don’t need to understand much about Korean culture to be able to see the majesty and power in the elaborate exorcism scene. On more than one occasion you feel like pausing the scene to admire the beautifully captured landscape. Most of all as this is a horror film, the sense of tension never lets up due in no small part to how the plot refuses to settle down on some definitive account of what’s really going on and who is truly to blame. You can tell that this is deliberate as the director lampshades it by having characters directly ask both the Japanese man and the lady in white who or what they are and never getting a straight answer out of them.
To me, this results in a film that is enjoyable to watch in parts but makes for a frustrating experience as a whole as I felt cheated out of any kind of resolution that makes sense. I’m especially annoyed that the exorcism scene seems to have been intended to deliberately mislead the audience in that events that are shown in parallel are actually unconnected. It’s one thing for a character to deceive another character and the audience along with it but it’s another for the director to deceive the audience directly. The rest of this is a spoiler so be warned. After finishing this, I went online in search of discussions about it and a popular interpretation is that the woman is meant to a Jesus figure and the Japanese really is the devil after all. There are plenty of clues supporting this such as the stoning scene in which the woman first appears so this is a reasonable conclusion. Yet if we were to take the Christian theory seriously, this would be a very un-Christian deity. Why is the little girl a victim if it is the father who is being punished for his lack of faith? Why is God allowing the devil to torment the inhabitants of a village?
My own view is that the film seems incoherent because the director himself who also wrote the screenplay doesn’t quite know how to pull everything together and is merely throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. His execution may be impeccable and his technical skills impressive but they are in service of a plot that never made sense in the first place. That’s why I’d rate this as a disappointment.