The Wailing: The Peak of Slow-Burn Horror
An old Japanese Man (Jun Kunimura) is fishing from the bank of a country river. We move in closer, and see his hands bait a worn hook with a live worn.
We fade to black.
This is how we’re introduced to Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016), a truly masterful work of slow-burn horror. Over the next three hours, citizens of the small Korean village, Geokseong, are introduced to a rich spiritual mythology, and given enough time to properly confront it.
We are introduced to our main character, Jung-gu (Do-won Kwak) in bed early one morning. He is buzzed awake by his cell phone, and gets word that he’s needed on the scene of a potential homicide. Jung-gu is a sergeant in Geokseong’s small police force. It’s pouring outside, and his Mother-in-Law (Jin Heo) begs him to eat something before heading out. But he can’t. Jung-gu’s already late; he needs to hurry.
“Hurrying won’t bring back the dead,” his Mother-in-Law says, and we smash to Jung-gu at the kitchen table, shoveling rice in his face.
The film is very funny in its opening sequences, familiarizing the audience with the players of the small village. Jung-gu’s friends turn to him as a sort-of voice of reason in the climate of extreme gossip; despite being maligned by his supervisor at work, and bumbling through his life at home, Jung-gu is shown to be perceptive.
Arriving at the scene that pouring morning, Jung-gu is told there are two bodies: the ginseng farmer, and his wife. Nearby, handcuffed to a porch pillar, is the suspect. The young man has boils and sores all over his body, frosted white eyes, and an open-mouth wheeze. Looking inside the compound, Jung-gu notices a child’s shoe.
“What happened to the kid?” he says, and is told the other officers took him to stay with a relative.
He notices the small details, though sometimes his methods are questionable. At the next crime scene — the location of the murders, before the bodies were moved — Jung-gu smokes a cigarette while his colleagues take a look inside. When they call him over to have a look, he slips and has to be caught and hoisted back up by the other officers. His own work won’t be enough in this case; Jung-gu will need the support of the community to defeat the evil that has arrived in Geokseong.
The paranoia of rumor is a character in itself in The Wailing. We cut from the crime scene to a beautiful forest, where a man has killed a deer. Hoisting the deer up to carry it, the man loses his balance and falls down the mountain, breaking his fall face-first on a rock. When he regains consciousness, there is a figure nearby, eating his deer. The figure is naked, save a loin cloth. As it turns, noticing the man, we see this figure is the Japanese man; his mouth red with blood, his eyes the same color. The Japanese Man moves closer, and at the moment he lunges for the poor hunter, we pull back to a late, boring night at the Police station where Jung-gu is hearing the story told to him by his friend, Seong-bok (Kang-gok Son).
“The whole town’s talking about it,” Seong-bok says.
A number of strange things — including our opening murder — have occurred in Geokseong recently; village consensus is these events coincide with the Japanese Man’s arrival. Consciously or not, the villagers have already convicted the Japanese Man of these offences. From here, Jung-gu must toe the line of fact and fiction. There is plenty of suspicion in the village, but no real evidence has been proposed.
A few days later, Jung-gu is on the scene of a house fire and sees the Japanese Man standing among the onlookers. When Jung-gu tells his friends about seeing the Japanese Man, it comes to light this man recently raped a woman in the village: the same woman whose house just burned down. Again, Jung-gu considers this rumor, but takes it with a grain of salt. Public opinion is against the Japanese Man, but Jung-gu is careful to play within the boundaries of the law; he wants to prove the Japanese Man is behind the village’s violence.
Jung-gu, in what is presented as a dream, visits the charred remains of the house and finds a young woman there. The Mysterious Woman (Woo-hee Chun) is not a family member, but has intimate knowledge of the family’s last days in the house. Jung-gu mentions seeing the Japanese Man the night the house burned down, and the Mysterious Woman pulls some of the curtain back.
“If you keep seeing him around,” she says, “it’s because he’s stalking you… to suck your blood dry.”
Shrieking and yelping awake, Jung-gu’s Wife (So-yeon Jang) asks what vile sin he committed to be screaming like that; a first-viewing throwaway line that signifies a key shift in our main character as we learn more about the evil he is disturbing. Jung-gu’s Wife has brought medicine home for their daughter, Hyo-jin (Hwan-hee Kim), who is running a fever. On Jung-gu’s suggestion, Hyo-jin is taken to a hospital where doctors are unsure of the cause, or even the type of illness afflicting her. Jung-gu’s Mother-in-Law informs him she’s enlisted the help of a Shaman to cure Hyo-jin; Jung-gu reluctantly agrees, and subconsciously acknowledges what’s happening in Geokseong has a spiritual bent.
Jung-gu decides it’s time to speak with the Japanese Man himself. He and Seong-bok enlist Seong-bok’s nephew, Yang-yi Sam (Do-yoon Kim), who is a deacon and speaks some Japanese, to translate.
The Japanese Man’s home is deep in a thick, steep-sloped forest. They trek into the early afternoon, finally reaching the dilapidated compound. Inside, Jung-gu and Seong-bok find enough evidence to convince themselves the Japanese Man is behind the strange events in the village. There are sacrificial rooms with shrines, animal skulls, and candles burning; one room’s walls are lined with hundreds of Polaroid photos of villagers, including the woman whose house burned down.
As they search the house, the Japanese Man returns. With the officers on the ground, cowering from the Japanese Man’s big dog, he steps through the doorway to survey the damage. Backlit and framed to tower over the officers, the Japanese Man stands in judgement of their immoral behavior, and the shot reminds the viewer we haven’t seen the Japanese Man commit any crimes firsthand. We, like the villagers, have only heard rumors, and interpreted his actions as sinister. The brilliance of The Wailing lies in this ambiguity: is the Japanese Man a monster, or are the villagers projecting their worst fears onto a man they haven’t taken the time to know?
Riding back into town, Seong-bok shows Jung-gu a white sneaker he found in the room of photographs. In the lining, scribbled in black pen, is Hyo-jin’s name. Jung-gu shifts from interested to obsessive. When confronted with the sneaker, Hyo-jin says it isn’t hers, but does admit meeting the Japanese Man. At the end of the interrogation, Hyo-jin snaps and screams obscenities at her father. Upon closer inspection, she carries the same rash as the village’s previous victims. Here the film shifts from a murder-mystery to a paranormal possession, with Jung-gu helpless to the torment his daughter endures.
With Hyo-jin suffering at home, Jung-gu decides to return to the Japanese Man’s home to confront him. But the rooms of ritual, the animal remains, the hundreds of photographs, have all been removed. When asked about what they saw last time, particularly the photographs, the Japanese Man, bored with the questioning, says he burned them. Jung-gu, livid the Japanese Man is not taking him seriously, ransacks the man’s home with a pickaxe he found outside. When the man’s dog gets loose, Jung-gu kills it and threatens the man has three days to leave Geokseong, or he’ll end up like his dog. We hold on the Japanese Man’s reaction, which is still and unfettered by the violence Jung-gu has brought upon him.
Then Na Hong-jin, the film’s writer and director, delivers a master stroke. The next morning Jung-gu is awakened by a screaming outside. At the entrance to his family’s compound is a black goat, hung by its feet, its entrails spilling to the ground. Jung-gu tries to get up, but his legs seem paralyzed. His Wife and Mother-in-Law take him to an acupuncturist, who assures the family Jung-gu’s affliction is simply a matter of over-drinking. The audience’s supernatural inclinations are momentarily subverted by a real-world plausibility.
While the adults are at the acupuncturist, Hyo-jin is left with a neighbor. Upon hearing this, Jung-gu rushes home, only to have his fears realized. In the kitchen of the neighbor’s home is Hyo-jin, a bloody pair of scissors in her hand, the neighbor’s lifeless body taking up most of the floor.
In a beautiful sequence that rhymes with our introduction, Seong-bok arrives at the neighbor’s home much like Jung-gu approached the ginseng farmer’s. He sees the body; the commotion of police officers; a dazed Jung-gu gives his account of the events; Jung-gu’s Wife and Mother-in-Law console Hyo-jin, clearly a victim in her own right. Na Hong-jin planted the context for this scene in the first images of the film, which is why it resonates so powerfully when characters we care for are affected.
At almost exactly halfway through our narrative, the Shaman, Il-gwang (Jung-min Hwang) is introduced. Jung-gu and Seong-bok are discussing their experiences since visiting the Japanese Man, and we suddenly cut to a luxury sedan winding through Geokseong’s densely-forested hills. Booming, digitally-fuzzed war drums accompany his arrival; for good or bad, this Shaman is here to disrupt the village’s quiet traditions.
Il-gwang is reluctant to cross the threshold of Jung-gu’s compound, beautifully framed in the archway. He examines Hyo-jin; then, upon inspecting the grounds of the compound, finds a dead crow in a large jar of soy sauce the family stores outside.
“It’s a real wicked spirit we’ve got here,” he says.
Il-gwang performs a somewhat-impromptu exorcism on Hyo-jin and the property. He dances in a colorful robe, chanting as his assistants beat drums and ring bells. Hyo-jin growls and screams and writhes in pain for the ritual’s duration. The clapping of the cymbals and drums; the Shaman’s antagonizing taunts; Hyo-jin’s wild screaming; the whole scene is incredibly tense and unsettling, conveying the power of the spirit that has taken hold of this family, while simultaneously displaying the power and perseverance required to banish it.
“Of all the evil I’ve seen, this is the strongest,” Il-gwang says. Jung-gu disturbed the Japanese Man, and the only way to escape his spell is for the Shaman to case a deadly hex against him. Il-gwang asks if Jung-gu has the $10,000 needed to finance the ritual, before changing from his white robes to a black Nike track jacket and lighting a cigarette. Jung-gu is at a loss, why did his daughter have to be chosen?
“If you go fishing,” Il-gwang says, “do you know what you’ll catch?”
Jung-gu shakes his head.
“He’s just fishing,” the Shaman says. “Not even he knows what he’ll catch. He just threw out the bait, and your daughter took it.”
From this moment, Jung-gu and his family are doomed to fail. They have placed their faith, and survival, in the hands of a man who does not believe in his craft. Il-gwang is only concerned with money, while the Japanese Man is atavistically committed to his rituals. The following sequence highlights the vast difference in their methods.
Il-gwang, at Jung-gu’s compound, and the Japanese Man, at his home in the forest, perform dueling rituals that are viscerally juxtaposed, and spellbind the audience. Il-gwang, in his colorful robes, accompanied by loud instruments and disciples, chants and dances around the courtyard, sacrificing white chickens, spraying their blood from his mouth. The Japanese Man sits cross-legged in a quiet room. Candles burn and black chickens hang from the ceiling as he taps at an old drum, chanting his own ritual against the Shaman’s.
The minimalism of the Japanese Man, cut with the extravagant, loud ritual of Il-gwang, further emphasizes the conviction that differentiates these holy men. Despite Il-gwang’s lack of faith, his hex does seem to affect the Japanese Man. We see the man start to grab at his body, feeling the pain of the Shaman’s ritual.
Of course, Jung-gu and his family do not know the Japanese Man is performing his own ritual; so when Hyo-jin experiences a violent reaction, Jung-gu thinks their Shaman is to blame, and he forces Il-gwang to stop, running into the courtyard and smashing the instruments. With Il-gwang interrupted, the Japanese Man is able to gasp back to life and escape the death hex. Hyo-jin’s eyes have rolled into her head, and she’s paralyzed in a contorted pose. The family takes her to the hospital, and Jung-gu decides to round up his friends to confront the Japanese Man again.
“If he’s a ghost, he can’t be killed.”
A chase through the woods ensues: The Japanese Man fleeing the group of violent men. The group chases the man to the edge of a cliff, where he seems to have vanished. We move down and see the Japanese Man clutching the mountainside, hiding from the men just above him. Losing his grip, the Japanese Man falls a great distance, some 75 feet, and scurries out of view from the men above. While he is in pain, the Japanese Man is not greatly affected by the fall, and this puts the viewer in a conflicted position.
We empathize with the Japanese Man for the first time; he appears an old man viciously persecuted for crimes he did not commit. Jung-gu and his men are an angry mob, unsubstantiated in their conviction. But these feelings belie the truth we are seeing onscreen. In surviving his fall, the Japanese Man has proven Jung-gu’s assertion. Na Hong-jin shows us definitively, in this moment, the Japanese Man is a spirit not of this world. He is a ghost.
It is in the midst of the Japanese Man’s agony he first sees the Mysterious Woman, dressed in all white, peering at him through the branches. The Japanese Man chases the Woman through the forest, proving to the audience he is virtually unscathed by his fall. In a downpour, Jung-gu drives the truck full of his friends back into town. Calling his wife, Jung-gu is distracted and nearly collides head-on with another truck. In the ensuing swerving and twisting, Jung-gu strikes and kills a man in the road.
Getting out of the truck, looking closer at the man, Jung-gu and his friends can’t help but notice this man bears a striking resemblance to the Japanese Man. But this is little consolation to Jung-gu; he knows this is not the Japanese Man, because the Japanese Man can’t be killed.
The group decides to dump the body over the side of the road, down the mountain. The camera slowly moves to frame Jung-gu with the hills behind him. His face tells so much: though he’s not optimistic, he hopes this is the Japanese Man; that this ordeal can finally end. But as the camera finishes its move, the frame captures the white-dressed Mysterious Woman in the hills, witnessing the disturbance from high above.
Just as the audience grasps the truth of the plot, how each player fits into the spiritual tapestry we’ve seen unfold, Na Hong-jin twists it away. Hyo-jin, in a powerful scene, has recovered at the hospital, and is permitted to return home. Though exhausted, she seems to have returned to her normal self, and Jung-gu and his family are greatly relieved. Il-gwang arrives at Jung-gu’s home to check on Hyo-jin and alert Jung-gu of new developments in the possession.
As he arrives, the Shaman’s nose starts to bleed. He tilts his head back, stumbling in the street. From the shadows, the Mysterious Woman appears, insisting the Shaman leave. Il-gwang starts spewing blood and a milky froth from his mouth, the Mysterious Woman calmly looking on. Il-gwang manages to regain some composure and flees in his car, calling Jung-gu to tell him what has happened.
The Shaman “misread the divination. [He] cast the hex on the wrong ghost.” In the Shaman’s interpretation, the Mysterious Woman is the evil spirit. The Japanese Man is a shaman, like him, and he was trying to kill the Mysterious Woman to save the village from her. Jung-gu knows the woman Il-gwang refers to, and finds her outside his home.
The Mysterious Woman tells Jung-gu his daughter is possessed by an evil spirit. The Japanese Man is a ghost, and he’s trying to suck Hyo-jin’s blood dry. The Mysterious Woman has set a trap for the demon, and Jung-gu must not return home until it is caught. Il-gwang tells Jung-gu the Mysterious Woman can’t be trusted; the Woman tells Jung-gu to not trust the Shaman, he and the Japanese Man are in on it together.
In one last gasp of paranoia, we assume Jung-gu’s role. Everyone’s cards are on the table. Does he trust the Shaman, or the Mysterious Woman? Hyo-jin’s fate rests on his decision.
As Jung-gu rushes to put the pieces together, the pacing ramps up with him. We scramble between the horror at Jung-gu’s home, and a cave deep in the mountains, where Yang-yi Sam (Seong-bok’s Japanese-speaking nephew) has tracked the Japanese Man. All facades are stripped. Each player’s physical expression finally matches the core of their character.
We see Jung-gu and Hyo-jin together. Ear-to-ear grins, riding a twirl-a-whirl, clutching each other in a dreamy flashback.
“You know Daddy’s a policeman,” Jung-gu says in a distant voiceover. “I’ll take care of everything… Daddy will.”
We fade to black.