My first encounter with Asian horror was Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (The Grudge) (2002) and it upset me more than I was expecting. At the time my ignorance and lack of experience put this down to the supernatural threat not playing by (what I then saw as) the rules. The malevolent force could pursue victims who ran from the haunting (there was no escape, that’s not fair!).
|Oh now, this really is too far. Most unsporting.|
Now of course I know better, and the concepts of a hex or haunted individual are neither new or particularly Asian. Half of MR James’ Edwardian tales of terror feature a malevolent supernatural force that won’t let someone go when they discover something they shouldn’t. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983) and its subsequent adaptations features a ghost that relentlessly pursues the protagonist to his doom for no other reason that she noticed him and he has a child. So what was it about Asian horror that unsettled me so?
My best guess now is cultural unfamiliarity.
|Pictured: cultural unfamiliarity.|
Horror and in particular folk horror can often rely on the juxtaposition of the familiar and the Other, often in close proximity, but my own lack of experience with Japanese or South Korean culture meant there was far less in the film that I could deem familiar. It was all Other. Shimizu’s 2004 English Language remake of The Grudge plays on that very theme by centring much of the action on American ex-pats in Tokyo, highlighting their isolation and ignorance.
So it would seem in keeping that Na Hong-jin’s rural horror The Wailing might pitch things a little differently to how someone schooled on Western rural horror films might expect. If it is a folk horror film, it’s one where the horror turns up in your community rather than you stumbling upon it. And that makes it far harder to escape.
We open with a Biblical quote:
‘Why are you troubled,’ Jesus asked, ‘and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see — for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ – Luke 24:37-39
Jesus’s resurrection and appearance to his followers, telling them he’s not a ghost, he’s real. Beyond trying to offend Judaism, Christians are notably keen on bodily resurrection and there’s a strong undercurrent of warped Christianity throughout this film, culminating in a young, inexperienced Deacon encountering a physical, literal demon.
“Look at my hands and my feet.”
We see a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) fishing, alone, baiting a hook……
|There’s some sort of metaphor here but for the life of me…|
This film takes its time; this is a rural horror that wants to be grounded in reality. Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a police sergeant in an isolated, mountain community is called to the scene of a multiple homicide… well, he is after a sequence where his mother in law (Her Jin) makes him have breakfast first, and we’re introduced to Jong-goo’s family, including his inquisitive daughter (Kim Hwan-hee).
Something in town is making ordinary people into mindless, brutal killers. A disease? People are panicked and some seek to blame it on the arrival of a recently arrived Japanese recluse. This isn’t the place to go into the history of Japan-Korea relations, but suffice to say they’ve not been great and thus the presence of a Japanese hermit – an outsider, an old enemy – ticks the boxes of mob justice and convenient blame. There are local stories abound that range from the fantastical (he’s a blood sucking demon) to the brutal (he raped a local woman).
A mysterious young woman, Moo-myeong (literally “no name” in Korean) (Chun Woo-hee) tells Jong-goo the Japanese man is a blood sucking ghost but she herself appears to be Other, so can he trust her word either?
|She doesn’t exactly make it easy.|
When Jong-goo’s daughter beings to show signs of possession/infection, the mother in law calls on a Shaman, Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min) to combat the evil, while Jong-goo is dubious and prefers to confront the Japanese man head on.
The initially unhurried nature of the central character mirrors the film’s pacing, details are important and the camera lingers. We take time to establish Jong-goo’s family because that will be crucial. This film beautifully shot, sumptuously graded and expertly framed.
|Ooh, those long shots.|
The brutality of the murders and the artistry of the presentation are amusingly contrasted with a fair amount of physical comedy and Jong-goo is no conventional hero, he’s overweight, panicky, irrational and driven by a deep love for his family. In short Na’s keen to paint him as incredibly normal. Sometimes the comedy misses its mark, asides about adult nappies are genuinely funny but a lightning strike on a character is played for laughs rather than shock and merely succeeds in undercutting the drama.
Once we enter the last hour of the film, the pacing is ramped up several notches. No longer a police investigation, we now shift focus to an father trying comprehend the impossible, to protect his family during extraordinary events. But we’re never in any real doubt that the Japanese man is behind the killings, attempts to persuade the viewer that he may be using magic to try and stop the real villain, Moo-myeong never really convince, and the twist over Il-gwang’s true motives arrives too late to pack a big a punch as it might.
|There’s something not right about him..|
At over two and a half hours this is a longer than average piece, which isn’t a problem if this film knows where it’s going but The Wailing’s either been heavily edited in its last third or Na’s become impatient and indiscipline’s got the better of him. It’s a terrifyingly fun climax but the film loses its heart and soul to get there, not to mention its internal logic.
|Demons don’t always run when a good man goes to war.|
The literal translation for the film’s title is “The sound of weeping” and it’s a better one. Like the near omnipresent rain, desolation and despair are constant companions. There’s a real sense of dread rather than terror for much of The Wailing and this makes the breakneck-speed-yet-overlong ending jar so badly.
Stunningly shot but unevenly scripted, The Wailing leaves you underwhelmed and disappointed, which given all the ingredients on offer is doubly unsatisfying, even if all the doubting Thomases of this community are left in no doubt that demons are real, and they have flesh and bones.
This post orginally appeared in Howard Ingham’s Room 207 blog.