The setting is a one street town somewhere in the rather green and very wet countryside of South Korea. The quiet town has three policemen, ordinary blokes enjoying their sinecures. These men abuse their bodies with excess food, alcohol and cigarettes. Having little to do, they waste time. Life feels like a plague that all have to endure. The oldest of the three policemen is something like a boss. He criticises the two younger men for not being competent. The older man, perhaps recognising his limitations in others, shouts from time to time. He expects that his extra years as a policeman have earned him a problem free existence. And so they might have if a Japanese stranger had not arrived. There is an outbreak of violence. Individuals succumb to a strange rash, go crazy and attack the other members in their family. This plague is virulent. Without ever borrowing from other genres The Wailing manages to reference several. These include vampires, zombies, exorcism, diabolism, serial killers and ghosts. The film mixes broad comedy, genuine horror and serious thought. The Wailing is an ambitious and fine movie. It has its own logic and it grips because the audience is obliged to wonder if there will be a rational or supernatural explanation. Like the characters in the film, we do not know whether to trust the gothic or the modern. This tension the viewer shares with the hero. Last Train To Busan was a great zombie film, and The Wailing is marvellous. South Korea continues to have the edge in horror films.
At the beginning of the film the mood is like gentle Fargo. In both films weather is both important and oppressive. In Fargo the Cohen brothers had a cynical and superior attitude to the losers in the Minnesota town. These were people who just missed out on living in the nearby Duluth where Bob Dylan was born. More important the thought does not occur to them. The Wailing has even fewer illusions about the worth of human beings but, although there is even less optimism than there is in Fargo, there is more sympathy. The relationship between the young policemen suggests Laurel and Hardy. They are two men not quite coping with modest responsibility and surviving through bluff and bravado. They are cowardly rather than heroic and they lack willpower. The expletives distinguish the comedy of The Wailing from the British humour of Last Of The Summer Wine but before the horror starts there are echoes of the fatalistic anarchism that the programme used to remember about Northern life in Britain. Those wayward characters were recognisable as human beings. They were not inferior. They differed from the rest of us only because they lived in different circumstances and their opportunities were limited. This also applies to the characters in The Wailing. It is existence that is farcical, not the people.
The crimes in The Wailing that are investigated by the police have all been committed by victims. This is a key theme within the film, the impossibility of establishing guilt and producing a sensible response to who may or may not be the victim. The priest who becomes involved in the investigation has little influence on the lives of others. He will, though, understand more than the rest. The initial reaction of the policeman and villagers to the crimes is to look for a scapegoat. The policeman Jong-goo learns that distinguishing between guilt and innocence, good and evil, is a lot more difficult than blaming someone whose face does not fit. Because his daughter also becomes infected with the rash that precedes violence, there is more at stake for Jong-goo. The decision about what to do and who to accuse will have ramifications for everyone in his family.
It may have something to do with the legacy of modern feminism and the partial domestication of men but this is the second horror film in the last year that dwells on the feelings of a father towards a daughter in danger. Maggie is a decent zombie film that is held together by this theme. More integrated into the family, modern man invests more in the emotional progress of his children. The loss of a daughter causes a father to suffer twice. He grieves over the loss but also feels that he was obliged to provide security and has failed. In one scene the daughter of Jong-goo witnesses her father having impersonal sex with her mother. Jong-goo will subsequently have to battle for the life of his daughter. The task is made more difficult because he is now a weakened and inauthentic father. His sexual desire and vulnerability has been exposed to the one person who needs to think he is strong.
Maggie is a modest but accomplished film dominated by a single preoccupation. The Wailing is packed with ideas and also has some great scenes. The discovery of the dead bodies in the rain pelted ruined house is marvellous. The heavy rain is contemptuous burden that adds to the already demanding circumstances of life and family. When the police arrive at the scene of the crime, modernism intrudes the countryside. Modern knowledge and tools are welcomed as a potential defence against threats. The policemen, of course, are only human beings. They assume that their weaponry and brutality will defeat the threat. The policemen are deluded and destructive. Modernism is a sham, and Jong-goo is obliged to seek explanation and protection from the local shaman. Self-important and righteous the shaman creates tension, some of it deliberate. The exorcism involves show business detail that takes time to be revealed but, because of invention and drama, the scene is not over extended. The exorcism prepares us for a memorable and twisted climax.
To proceed through Laurel and Hardy comedy towards desperation and energetic conflict before finally capturing spiritual desolation that we can all share requires real skill and energy from an actor. Kwak Do-won is the overweight and sometimes vacant Jong-goo. In the early scenes he is a figure of fun and an irritant but by the end of the film his battles and hidden humanity capture our sympathy. All the actors are competent in The Wailing. Jun Kunimara plays the Japanese stranger. The actor will be familiar to fans of Tarantino. He manages to be inoffensive but threatening. His unblinking eyes may put scriptwriters out of work. The other outsider in the film is female. The woman, Moo-myung, is mysterious and beautiful. Moo-myung means no name. Jong-goo treats both the Japanese outsider and the female with contempt but they and what he discovers about them will shape his life and force him to face responsibility. Both the Japanese man and the beautiful woman are inexplicable and have secret ambitions. The Wailing reveals the paranoia we all have with strangers, the other. The routine of village life may disappoint the three policemen but under no circumstances do they want to see it threatened. Jong-goo has his family and himself to protect. Real responsibility is far less appealing than power, making decisions about people whose lives can be considered as unimportant. Power involves taking the territory of others. Responsibility encourages building a fence around the land we know and have.
In most films the development of the character of Moo-myung would be considered a weakness. She is absent for much of the film but the progress of Jong-goo, the exorcism and the climax overcome any problems her intermittent characterisation poses. Moo-myung is remote but her mystery intensifies the dilemma of Jong-goo and the final drama of a powerless man having to cope with real responsibility. For most of us the stakes will not be as high as they are for Jong-goo but we have all had moments when we have had to guide others through a world that we are not equipped to understand. All it needs is someone powerful decide that we remain ignorant, and we have a conspiracy.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.