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De-Centering the Viewer in The Wailing

“Can anybody make sense of what’s happening here?”  asks Jong-goo, innocently, and for many viewers of The Wailing, the answer is a resounding no.

Many of the attempted explanations of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016) make the same mistake: they attempt to impose linearity on a plot that leaves many things unspoken. In The Wailing, however, sequences are cut to appear out of order, and even extended dream sequences are later revealed to be reality. The two major players for the souls of the villagers—Moo-Myung and the Japanese man—are spirits who do not adhere to standard human concepts of time and chronology, and as such, their motivations for their actions stem from both past and future. Additionally, there is no big speech in which one character reveals themselves to be “Good” or “Evil.” Instead, the characters each have their motivations, and at the center of The Wailing lies the battle for Hyo-jin’s soul. This often forces viewers to overcorrect in many ways, often by placing motivations or ideals on characters that do not exist in the film. The explanations often focus on a sort of showdown between good and evil, often between Moo-Myung, the woman in white, and a demon.

Yet, this is not the case. Na Hong-jin manages to keep the viewer off-balance for the entirety of the two-and-a-half hour film, no small feat. Hong-jin does this by incorporating multiple, often conflicting, ideas and religions into one narrative, de-centering the Western viewer, who often expects clear motivations, and an often linear narrative that focuses on two opposing poles of thought coming into direct, spoken, and explainable conflict. The Wailing offers nothing of the sort, which led to multiple reviews citing the film’s opacity. Even positive reviews of The Wailing seem unable to penetrate the narrative. It’s a “meandering and nonsensical genre recombination,” according to Benjamin Mercer; “It’s deliberately designed as a baffling film,” says Colin Covert; the film features [that] “layers of dissembling and self-dissembling pile up so thickly,” writes Phil Hoad. Indeed, the “dissembling and self-dissembling” is a conscious choice by Na Hong-jin, who mixes religion and folklore into a stew that consistently confounds the viewer.

In multiple interviews, Na Hong-jin consistently refers to an unnameable enemy. Speaking of Jong-goo, Hong-jin says, “Strangers invade yet he doesn’t know if they are allies or enemies. This was the kind of threat that I wanted to express. It’s like a hidden threat deep inside. I felt that this would be more terrifying than a dynamic threat – something dwelling inside and not visible” (Conran). This “hidden threat deep inside” manifests itself across numerous entities, and Jong-goo, like the viewer, is unable or unwilling to discern who is exactly an ally or an enemy. Hong-jin also refers to The Wailing as an “occult film,” a clear summation of his desire to place multiple beliefs into direct conflict (Grozdanovic).

Like many viewers, the police in The Wailing, including main character Jong-goo, looks to rational explanations for the supernatural occurrences, often in spite of what little evidence exists. In the case of the police, the murders, often committed by family members, are blamed on poisonous mushrooms that are found at the scene of the crime. If the mushrooms are indeed the primary cause, they create a medical condition like no other found in science. Not only do the mushrooms cause a rash, but they slowly make the person go mad and murder their family. In one particularly grisly scene, one of the murderers dies in the hospital after his skin essentially turns color; his seizure-like thrashing is so severe that his collarbone snaps. Blood pours from his mouth. Certainly, the idea of mushrooms causing this type of medical condition—whatever it would be—strains credulity. Jong-goo, at the urging of a few of his friends, as well as his mother-in-law, soon believes that other, darker, forces are at work. The scientific explanation falls by the wayside.

The Wailing does, however, have a central conflict that powers the story, one that often gets lost in the rote discussion of good versus evil. Simply put, there is no good or evil, but there is a distinct competition between four different entities. These four entities battle one another for the souls of the characters, in particular, Jong-goo’s daughter, Hyo-jin. These four characters are:

The Woman in White: Moo-Myung appears in a dream at the start of the film, and does not appear again for almost two hours. She hovers on the margins of the battle, but her effects—and her power—appear to be enormous. At the various crime scenes, the detectives note that mushrooms and other herbs are in abundance in the households. They assume that a bad batch of mushrooms are causing the hallucinations, leading to the murders. However, Moo-Myung appears to be the one who is putting these things into place around the home, either to trap the demon or to protect the souls inside. She (supposedly) first appears to Jong-goo in a dream, as he and his partner wait at a crime scene, she constantly throws rocks in his direction before finally approaching him. When she appears again, she is actively pursuing the Japanese man, who is, in fact, a demon.

The Demon: The villagers consider the Japanese man living in the outskirts of the village to be the source of all of their problems. He appears in visions and is rumored to have sexually assaulted a woman as well as having stalked and eaten animals raw in the forests surrounding his home. (And, in an unfortunate nod to prevailing Korean bias toward the Japanese, he is often derisively referred to as “The Jap.”)

The Deacon: A Catholic priest in training, and the nephew of Jong-goo’s police partner, Yang Yi-Sam is reluctant to help Jong-goo. Yang Yi-Sam’s basic knowledge of Japanese, however, means that he is recruited to accompany Jong-goo to his visits with the Japanese man. In each case, Yi-Sam is forced to recite Jong-goo’s threats to the Japanese man, partially implicating him. Ultimately, Yi-Sam convinces Jong-goo to seek spiritual counsel for Hyo-jin’s condition, instead of relying on the shaman. Ironically, the father of the local church, however, proclaims Hyo-jin’s condition to be entirely medical, and refuses to assist Jong-goo. This forces Yi-Sam to seek out knowledge on his own, for his faith is clearly shaken.

The Shaman: Il-gwang is knowledgeable about possession and shaman rituals, and is, at first, seeking to save Hyo-jin…for a price of ten thousand dollars. When pressed for reasons why the demon would want to pursue Hyo-jin, Il-gwang points out, coldly, that there is no logic to the demon’s ways. The demon is, according to Il-gwang, essentially a fisherman, putting out the bait and waiting to see who responds to it. Il-gwang is often more wrong than right, as the push-and-pull between Moo-Myung and the demon causes intense confusion in his divinings.

Each of these characters has an intrinsic motivation in “earning” the souls of the villagers, and the conflict between the four leads to madness and murder. One of the earliest warning signs of the coming battle is the slow possession of an individual, denoted by the development of a rash on the victim’s body. The victims, which includes Jong-goo’s daughter, Hyo-jin, function normally for a time—Jong-goo and his partner see an afflicted woman casually chatting and laughing at a café, but once the person is marked, presumably by the demon, the battle is joined. As Jong-goo’s mother-in-law tells him upon realizing Hyo-jin is becoming possessed, “it has already started.” In The Wailing, then, possession is not the instantaneous takeover of a soul, as it is in Western cinema such as The Exorcist (1974). Instead, possession is a slow process, and one’s soul becomes a battleground for numerous entities.

The shaman is not completely an ally of the devil, however, if he is at all. Although their paths intersect, the shaman desires to coerce souls to join his own brand of shamanism. No greater evidence of a lack of collusion between the shaman and the devil comes from Moo-Myung herself, who tells Jong-goo in a dream that a murdered family went insane specifically because they did not call the shaman. Thus, when Jong-goo’s mother-in-law demands he hire a shaman, he agrees almost immediately, completely abandoning his previous skepticism. Interestingly, the scene of the shamanic exorcism is one that Na Hong-jin says “symbolizes the flexibility and differentiated originated from my identity both as Asian and Christian” (Grozdanovic).

Later, when Jong-goo and his partner, along with an eyewitness, travel to find the Japanese man, a sequence of events occur that show the collision of disparate religious ideas. As they approach the path to the home, the three men note the presence of colorful cloth wraps on the trees, indicating the presence of shamanic activity at some point in time. Although it goes unexplained, the wrapping of the trees was most likely Il-gwang’s doing, as he seems to spend much of the film trying to negate the growing power of the demon. The eyewitness begins to panic upon hearing that the police want him to join them, and a sudden thunderstorm erupts, sending all three men into a panic. A bolt of lightning strikes the eyewitness, and the trip to see the Japanese man is postponed so that the police can take him to the hospital. The thunder and lightning, of course, evokes the vengeful God of Old Testament theology, indicating, perhaps, that the demon’s power is growing strong enough to merit a warning.

The conflict is writ large in one of the final sequences of the film. The shaman, panicked, decides to leave the village. He drives down the road, only to be turned back by a storm of moths that cover his windshield, essentially blinding him and forcing his to return to Goeksung. He frantically calls Jong-goo telling him that he was wrong, that the evil spirit is in fact Moo-Myung, not the Japanese man.

Here, Il-gwang’s character is revealed to simply be a pawn in greater events. He rushes to Jong-goo’s home, only to stumble across Moo-Myung. With little explanation, Il-gwang begins to bleed profusely from the nose and vomit up gallons of white frothy liquid, all at the hands of Moo-Myung, who warns him away. Il-gwang, horrified, flees, packs up his belongings, and attempts to leave Gyeongsun entirely. However, on his trip, a series of moths begin pelting his car, effectively blinding him and turning him back. Il-gwang is trapped between two entities: Moo-Myung, who is chasing him away, and the growing power of the Japanese man, who is keeping him near.

While Il-gwang attempts to flee, Jong-goo goes to his home, discovering an empty house. The two men finally connect, and Il-gwang tells Jong-goo that he was wrong, that the evil spirit is not the Japanese man, but rather Moo-Myung, the young woman all in white. Hyo-jin is in danger from her, not the Japanese man. Here, Il-gwang is only partially correct; Hyo-jin and Jong-goo are indeed in danger, but not just from one character; both Moo-Myung and the Japanese man are locked in a sort of endless battle for souls in the village. Although the Japanese man’s power has waned after the interrupted death hex and being hit by Jong-goo’s car, he is still stalking Hyo-jin.

Jong-goo, alarmed, returns to his home, and in the most fascinating, and most puzzling sequence in the film, finds Moo-Myung. This is the first interaction since the very beginning of the film, where she pelts him with stones and then tells him about the murder scene of another family. Jong-goo recognizes her from this dream, and says so, but Moo-Myung disagrees, saying that “was not a dream.” The sequencing of the film, in which Jong-goo speaks with Moo-Myung, who warns him of the Japanese man and then tells him of the shaman, ends with him supposedly being attacked by the red-eyed and feral Japanese man, startling him awake. This turns out to be clever editing; Moo-Myung’s statement reveals that the Japanese man’s red-eyed form did indeed appear to Jong-goo, and Moo-Myung did indeed talk with him. Jong-goo awakening with screams is essentially cut to make the sequence look like a dream, while, in fact, Jong-goo could be awakening at any time in the film.

Moo-Myung also tells Jong-goo that Hyo-jin is being stalked by the Japanese man because she has “a father who has sinned,” which ironically echoes his mother-in-law’s comment upon Jong-goo’s screaming himself awake. She asks Jong-goo “what sins did you commit” to make him scream like that. Jong-goo is confused, and asks for an explanation why the Japanese man is targeting Hyo-jin. Moo-Myung’s explanation—that is it because Jong-goo accused the Japanese man and attacked him—confounds Jong-goo as well as many viewers, because these incidents happen out of order: Hyo-jin develops the rash, which sends Jong-goo to the Japanese man. But these are linear notions of time. Both the Japanese man and Moo-Myung, being spirits, do not conform to traditional boundaries of time; the Japanese man knew that Jong-goo would attack him, so he began pursuing his daughter’s soul.

Intercut with this conversation is another player in the battle for Hyo-jin’s soul. The deacon, frustrated by his Church’s lack of motivation to help Jong-goo, Yang Yi-Sam finds the Japanese man in a cave. The Japanese man is clearly injured and weakened; Yang Yi-Sam, carrying a cross and a pickax, asks to see the Japanese man’s true form, and eventually, the Japanese man agrees, manifesting into a traditional demon; hairy, reddened, with small horns on his head. The demon’s power is returning, and he begins to mock Yang Yi-Sam, eventually taking pictures of him, a clear sign that Yang Yi-Sam is his next victim.

Back at the Jong-Soo house, Moo-Myung tells him that she has set a trap for the demon, and that Jong-Soo cannot return to the home until the rooster crows three times. During their conversation, the rooster crows twice; Jong-Soo then notices that Moo-Myung is wearing items from previous victims, including a hair clip belonging to Hyo-jin. Like the demon, Moo-Myung takes items from her intended victims to mark them. Moo-Myung possesses Hyo-jin’s hair clip in the same way that the demon, earlier in the film, is found to have Hyo-jin’s shoe. That both spirits have possessions indicate the neither has an entirely pure motivation. Moo-Myung’s endorsement of the shaman, for instance, can be read as her attempt to weaken the demon through Il-gwang’s eventual use of the death hex. In other words, she uses the shaman to stifle the competition.

Jong-goo breaks away from Moo-Myung’s grip and runs back to his house. For the first time in the film, Moo-Myung shows emotion and her true form, screaming “No!” after Jong-goo, and her eyes begins to glow. As Jong-goo passes through the threshold to his home, the various herbs that Moo-Myung has put up wither; whether these herbs are indeed a trap for the demon, or a trap for Hyo-jin, is left open for interpretation. Jong-goo’s entry into the home, however, destroys Moo-Myung’s grip on the house. Jong-goo, however, enters the home to find his wife and his mother-in-law dying from multiple stab wounds. Hyo-jin is fully possessed by the demon, and soon, Jong-goo is attacked by her as well, presumably dying.

One final sequence occurs as Jong-goo dies. The shaman returns to the house—which is now abandoned by Moo-Myung—and enters. Seeing the carnage evokes no reaction in him; instead he, like the demon, takes pictures of the victims, including pictures of the still breathing Jong-goo. Il-gwang goes back to his car, still filled with his possessions, and accidentally drops a box on the ground. A large number of photos of the victims scatter across the ground. In other words, Il-gwang, like the demon, is recording the events, perhaps even researching them. Like Moo-Myung and the Japanese man, they seek to take small pieces of the victim before pursuing their soul. Moo-Myung is wearing various rings and necklaces of the victims. Each of these three characters have collected bit and pieces of souls along the way, converting them to their respective religions or belief systems: the shaman to Buddhism, Moo-Myung to folklore and paganism, and the deacon and the devil to Catholicism. Each soul, it can be argued, that is caught in this battle, ultimately becomes a staging ground for supernatural battles not only between spirits, but between the various religious belief systems themselves.

When Jong-goo arrives at his house, Moo-Myung tells him not to enter, that she has set a trap for the devil, and perhaps she has. More likely, however, is that she, like the shaman did earlier, has attempted to weaken the devil so that Hyo-jin’s soul may belong to her. Jong-goo, like the viewer, is torn between the opposing narratives: Moo-Myung, the Japanese man, and Il-gwang have told him multiple truths and half-truths. Jong-goo eventually ignores Moo-Myung’s entreaties, seemingly exposing his daughter, once again, to the demon’s claim to her soul. It could be argued, however, that Jong-goo decides to enter his home as he has come to realize the profound supernatural powers at work around him. He may simply be deciding to spend his final moments with his daughter. His final words include his desire to protect Hyo-jin, reminding her that he’s “a cop” and that he will “figure it out.” Jong-goo’s final memory is of he and Hyo-jin on a roller coaster, smiling.

Another piece of symbolism is the dead crow that appears twice in the film. Il-gwang, upon visiting Jong-goo for the first time, notes an impurity in the household, and, after some searching, finds a dead crow in the family’s large container of soy sauce. The crow is an ill omen, according to Il-gwang, and it will appear only one more time. After Moo-Myung chases Il-gwang away from Jong-goo’s house, he frantically rushes home and begins packing. An injured crow flies into the house and dies; this is not a vision, either, as, later, Jong-goo will see the dead crow on the floor. Il-gwang’s reaction to the crow is one of sheer fright. It is clear that he is no longer completely in control of his own destiny, and his interactions with both Moo-Myung and the Japanese man has shown to him the limits of his power. Additionally, the spectre of the crow is vastly different among numerous religions and folklores; in some cases, the crow is a symbol of bad luck. In other beliefs, it is a symbol of good luck. In still other beliefs, it is a symbol of duplicity. Yet, the crow itself is symbolic of how Na Hong-jin de-centers the viewer; it could also be argued that Il-gwang initially finds the crow because he is in league with the demon. This, however, indicates the Western desire to re-center the themes in the story toward a typical good versus evil dynamic.

The continual conflict between numerous forces and numerous beliefs in The Wailing is a clear effort by Na Hong-jin to de-center the viewer. As religions, folklores, superstitions, and beliefs collide, and as powerful forces seem to bend time itself, the viewer is often forced to make sense of multiple motivations for each character. This often results in the viewer forcing some sort of overarching structure upon the plot of The Wailing that is ultimately reductive. Like Jong-goo himself, the viewer is confused by almost every twist and turn of the plot, and the battle for Hyo-jin’s soul is a lonely one for Jong-goo. He is buffeted by forces well beyond his comprehension, and is ultimately, like the viewer, unable to find any solace or comfort except for in his most precious possession: his memories of happier times, unsullied by supernatural forces.

Bibliography: 

Conran, Pierce. “Interview: The Wailing’s Na Hong-jin, Questions for a Mastermind of Evil.” Screen Anarchy. June 9, 2016. Retrieved from: http://screenanarchy.com/2016/06/interview-the-wailings-na-hong-jin-questions-for-a-mastermind-of-evil.html

Covert, Colin. “The Wailing.” The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Retrieved from: http://www.startribune.com/mini-movie-reviews-the-wailing-wiener-dog-our-kind-of-traitor-therapy-for-a-vampire-tickled-les-cowboys/385051301/
Grozdanovic, Nikola. “Interview: The Wailing Director Na Hong-jin On Death, Genre, Religion & Comedy.” The Playlist. June 27, 2016. Retrieved from: http://theplaylist.net/interview-wailing-director-na-hong-jin-20160627/

Hoad, Phil. “The Wailing Review: Korean Horror Flick Takes Fear to the Brink of the Abyss.” The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/24/the-wailing-review-evocation-evil-korean-director-na-Hong-jin-rural-horror

Mercer, Benjamin. “Horror, Comedy, and Mystery Energetically Mingle in The Wailing.” The AV Club. Retrieved from: http://www.avclub.com/review/horror-comedy-and-mystery-energetically-mingle-wai-237528

About Jason Barr

Jason Barr is the author of The Kaiju Film: A Critical History of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters and has a co-edited volume on kaiju and pop culture coming out soon.

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