Before watching The Wailing, I would have said that the film convention of something being “just a dream” was an unforgivable offense. A movie audience accepts these shadows and lights as real as they would in a spiritual ceremony; the screen could be like a shaman exorcising us from real life. If it turns out to be a dream, they not only have to mentally reaffirm the movie’s reality: they also have to erase the mark it left on their spirit, on which all great movies survive. The convention of this kind of dreaming destroys the Western movie, which depends on knowing, not only what is real and fake, but that what is real is all that is important.
The Wailing weaponizes this convention. “It was all a dream” works in this film because it’s soaked to the bone in Eastern mythmaking, which does not value dreams less than reality. What happens to Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) in his worst nightmares is no less a part of the plot than what happens in his literal investigation. He will dream of a man with red eyes consuming a live deer, and see such a man with blood on his lips during the day. Every frame of The Wailing wades into dream space and out again. Nature in it becomes a backdrop not just to a murder investigation but to the primordial evils of human emotion that would make such an investigation necessary to begin with. We never know if people murder each other because of the anger pent up in a demonic spirit or just the anger pent up in themselves. If religion, is a living force of nature that can really strike you with lightning and steal your soul and impregnate you while you sleep, “it was all a dream” is not the least bit comforting.
The Wailing is a forensic mystery, but without the normal comforts of a capable detective, a coherent logic of clues, or a definite solution. Officer Jong-goo is not as he would be in an American film, a strapping hero or, at the very deepest, a non-hero with the capacity to become strapping. He does things that are almost exclusively against his best interests, slinking into information at an inhumanly sluggish pace, cheating on his wife on a whim, saving time for an abundant breakfast despite the atrocities occurring every day in his village. Protagonists in Edgar Wright’s horror movies would give him a wedgie. When Jong-goo’s daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) appears to be possessed, he becomes fully committed to wanting this mystery solved, but without the faculties to do so meaningfully. He rails like a red-faced baby against a world he doesn’t understand, ruled by a God of which the medievalists would have been proud: unknowable, all-powerful, and diabolically cruel. He’s a true oaf.
To communicate this contrast – of divine evil persecuting dumb people out of their own lives – The Wailing is composed only of beautiful images, most of all when the material is ugly. There is universality in the way Na Hong-jin regards nature and the mundane things people do around it, which can turn any interaction, real or fake, into a reconnaissance with God. A Japanese fisherman sits deathly cold on a stone shore. We see the earth beneath his fingernails well before we suspect that he is really a ghost: “just because he is a ghost, doesn’t mean that he is not a person,” someone mutters. In this town, shamans are on-call less for spiritual guidance than for specialist extermination, for the pests of the spirit that humans are unfit to manage alone, when they can no longer tell the difference between their beloved family and Satan himself, or between a fever dream and a friend.
What is the spirituality purported by The Wailing? Watching Hong-jin at work, “purport” also seems more like a Western concept, where the story would be guided by a moral right, even if the heroes were morally wrong. Instead, he subjects us to an exorcism for feature-length, as we brutally deal with these uncertain humans and try to excise a plot from their basic instincts. The shaman (Hwang Jung-min) decodes it for us in hot flashes of chicken blood and rattles, of swirling figures and tongues of fire. But we are not shown the results of his labor or given a right path to follow to spiritual victory. The Wailing never gives itself over to a single image of a terrifying thing, such as a demon leaving a possessed body (again we wonder if they’re possessed, or just inherently sinful). In the place of ameliorating horror, Hong-jin weaves us into his wary tapestry of suspicion and violence. Murderers look leery-eyed into an unknown distance, as if they know not what they did. Ghosts make themselves known with conflicting warnings and uncertain visitations, less like presences than images of the moral uncertainty that makes them necessary in mythology to begin with.
The film opens with a quote from the Christian ghost story (“It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have”) on which The Wailing transposes a new meaning. The scene of Jesus telling Thomas to touch his scars from a Western point of view implies that the risen Jesus is real, and therefore he can be believed. The difference in this Eastern retelling (The Wailing is intricately connected with the Bible mythology, as you may recognize) is subtle and also extraordinary: that the risen Jesus can be seen, and therefore he is as good as real. It is not important in The Wailing that dreams transpire, that zombies or demons or ghosts are “real,” but only that humans see them, and are influenced by the sight. A character uses a camera just before and after people die, implying that capturing an image is equal to capturing its soul. Hong-jin should have played him.
For film, this means that the images in The Wailing are like Jesus, as good as real because they can be seen: no matter how many times Jong-goo awakes, the film’s sphere of influence is still bigger (if Inception dives four times, The Wailing dives four hundred). The images transpose reality according to its symbols: a cellphone photographing a demon and kidnapping its soul, a callous little Prius contrasting the memories in a numinous pagoda. The language of The Wailing is like an ancient plea, as though declaration hasn’t been invented yet: it makes an offering of its symbols, while providing no definitions for them. For many viewers, this will equate to a singular feeling of being very, very lost.
A serious screwup for a protagonist isn’t the only thing that distances The Wailing from American suspense literature. Characters disappear altogether, swallowed up whole by the film’s forward motion: we see Jong-goo’s partner for the last time, trembling in a house lit so poorly that many would be forgiven for not recognizing him. “What happened to so-and-so?” must be a common post-viewing question. Is the film’s greatest horror that it doesn’t matter? Foreign films always run the risk of extrapolating too far from domestic understanding, but spirituality in The Wailing makes this purposeful. When we do not recognize someone, or lose track of them, Hong-jin (writing as well) appropriates that confusion into unease. It’s like he accepts race identification bias and incants it again for a new purpose.
Characters will become supportive and villainous alternatively, for instance. They will be un- and re-possessed by demons. They will appear shocked at the results of their own work. And every one of them will be caked in dirt, wearing out their glittery eyes, not infrequently bloodshot from living in a hostile world. Western audiences will not be used to being so left out of the inner workings of their characters’ spirits, or writing reviews with “----” in place of all the names to be looked up later.
There is no enlightenment to be gained in The Wailing, a film that is diabolically unclear, to the point that you’d be tempted to compare it to Jong-goo himself: aloof and oafish. Its stark images should dissuade you of that. Everyone in it is as lost as you, doomed to betray their loved ones and transgress their own beliefs (this is essentially what is so unnerving about the zombie narrative to begin with, which The Wailing exemplifies by being one only to the extent that we all have a zombie in us). As a story with characters, the film barely registers as real. No material power changes hands, no one triumphs or concedes. Yet as a series of images, wrought from nature and woven into a new myth about the frailty of the human soul, the film has more power than The Exorcist to unsettle, being more uncertain, and contains within it as much fear as we have for our own sins. The only redemption here is cosmic, the result of a balancing act whose unit of measurement we can’t perceive. Some films would not be more fake if they were a dream. The Wailing would not be more real.
Image is a screenshot from the film.