Readers who’ve not watched the film, keep reading until I tell you not to.
Na Hong-jin, the man and his movies:
Na Hong-jin, in a way is like the Tarantino or Kubrick of Korean cinema. Not in any particular way other than the fact that he’s made 3 films so far, since his feature debut with The Chaser in 2008. Three films, Worlds apart from each other, all written and directed by Na Hong-jin. Few filmmakers, World over, write and direct all their films. Na Hong-jin is not only a great great filmmaker but also a stunning writer. It all comes together gorgeously for him. All his work seems to have been supported not only by an unending research but also, at times, by folklore, beliefs of people from the streets, villages, cities and the like.
He makes sure he’s thoroughly aware of the World, probably getting as familiar with it as the people from that World, before getting into it and giving us his films. Sympathy / Empathy are not things he seems to consider. He tries to get into the minds of the people he is dealing with and thus having sympathy and empathy naturally entering his films as genuine byproducts as opposed to something forced down our throats. May be this is why his films scream authenticity. His filmography has a huge element of ‘We don’t know what to expect next’. Little did the World expect The Yellow Sea after watching The Chaser and least of all did they expect The Wailing after The Yellow Sea. By this I mean, it’s slightly unpredictable and that he’s ahead of the people who’re following his work closely. Even better, he hasn’t yet disappointed. All his films have won acclaim. If you ask me, every time one would think he’s hit the ceiling, he gets even better.
4-5 years ago when I watched it, to me, The Chaser was brilliantly written, performed and directed. One of the most gripping thrillers I have ever watched, I must add. Not only does it keep you on the “edge of your seat”, it makes it a point to whack you in the face about six or seven times throughout. After having watched that film, I quickly moved on to his only other film by Na Hong-jin at the point, The Yellow Sea. Gritty, grim movie with excellent treatment, almost a journey movie of sorts, it really got me wanting to know everything about Na Hong-jin. How a filmmaker, who also wrote his own stuff, found spaces within genres to move about with such impeccable detailing, was appalling to me.
It was clear that Na Hong-jin meant serious business after first two films of that kind. Sadly, we weren’t quite sure of when to expect the third film. It was only about a 7-8 months ago when I began to read about The Wailing on the internet. A couple of reviews from Cannes and some other festivals World over, we learnt that Na Hong-jin was entering the Horror space. You could only imagine the excitement. We waited.
The Wailing: Overview
I was quite shocked by The Wailing and I got an unending list of reasons to tell you about. Firstly, since I mentioned Na Hong-jin and his earlier work, it is important to understand that all 3 of his films are supported by a strong inherent understanding of the space he was getting into. To an extent, The Chaser is more of a genre piece. There’s no rocket science behind that. However, when you start approaching The Yellow Sea, things are totally different. The film has a number of satirical elements, an in depth understanding of illegal immigration, corruption and the brutality that binds it all together. This “deep understanding” shoots up astronomically with The Wailing. It all begin to make sense to me. Na Hong-jin had dived deep into his subject matter on all his films. The only difference coming from the fact that all 3 films come from different spaces, they all affect a viewer on different levels. Things started to get much more personal with The Yellow Sea and by the time we reach The Wailing, Na Hong-jin has a mind numbing impact on us. The only reason I could come up with is, the former two films are still a little distant from us. We can perceive that space between us and the matter the Director is dealing with. But The Wailing is about us. It tears into us and puts our short comings out on display. It breaks down the ideas surrounding society, religion, faith and all such things without holding back. Let’s begin.
For those who’ve not watched the film, good bye! (SPOILERS AHEAD)
The Wailing: In depth analysis
The Wailing begins with a quote from the bible
Luke 24:37-39, in which Jesus exhorts his followers
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.
He said to them, “Why are you troubled and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have..
This somehow tends to be the most crucial theme of the movie. In a way Na Hong-jin may be trying to tell us that we have certain notions about ghosts. Some of them or probably all of them are incredibly wrong. Not only are we wrong now but we have been wrong for a very long time. Here’s what the Shaman, played by the brilliant Jung-min Hwang says;
“Not everything that moves, breathes and talks is alive. Countless people have perished because they didn’t understand that”
Both these quotes are strongly supportive of a lot of things that happen during the run time of this movie. The best way to analyse this film is to move character wise. Let’s observe the most important characters and try to understand the film.
We could label him as the lead character in the film. Everything or almost everything happens from his perspective.
He’s a simple cop, probably not so good at what he does, not so respected at work, always throwing an excuse for coming in late. In a way, trapped by the murders happening in the town and gets further sucked in when his daughter is in question.
The Japanese man:
Easily the most controversial character. This is where we may part ways and have different opinions. It all depends on interpretations from now on.
According to people in the village, murders begin one by one AFTER the arrival of the Japanese man. This man claims to be a traveller and nothing else. The Shaman calls him a ghost, Jong-Goo can’t believe this, he tries to check himself. Along with the priest and his sidekick, Jong-Goo finds a lot “fishy” about this man, but still is not sure enough to call him a ghost. On their journey back, his sidekick presents him with a shoe. This shoe is claimed to have belonged to Goo’s daughter. This is where things begin to get worse for him and his family. Hyo-jin’s health begins to deteriorate soon after she starts acting strangely. By now, we may start assuming that the Japanese man, using her shoe, has gotten her possessed. We have enough evidences of devil worship in the man’s house. We could say that he’s possessed by the devil. After being run over by Jong-Goo’s car (probably being pushed by the mystery woman in white) his body is entirely taken over by the devil.
An evidence of how the Japanese man goes about his process is;
He finds a dead man in a car on the way to his house on top of the hill. Through his worship, he turns him into a “zombie” (zombies have been considered responsible for all the deaths so far either from being possessed or being affected by mushroom poisoning)
The quotes by the Shaman and to the start of the film, relate to this because the zombie created using the man in the car, is actually dead. But “touch him and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones..”
and for the Shaman’s quote; “not everything that moves, breathes and talks is alive.” To end it, with the Japanese man being run over by Goo’s car, he is “dead” but…… Fill in the blanks.
Entering the scene as a much needed helper, The Shaman has a journey of his own. He’s the first to doubt the Japanese man by asking Jong-Goo if he “disturbed” him. According to the Shaman, the Japanese man is a ghost. This is when he quotes what I’ve shared above.
Before the exorcism, he wants Goo to not interrupt. However, out of grave concerns for the life of his daughter, he does. From here, everything goes downhill. Especially for the Shaman. Goo ignores his calls. Near Jong Goo’s house he sees the white woman. As soon as he sees her he begins to vomit blood. Now we could infer that the Shaman, by now, is possessed and that she is trying to send him away (which she does). Considering his actions towards the end (with the photos / clicking new photos) something is definitely different about the Shaman now. If the White woman has tried to help from the start and she wants to send the Shaman away, may be she is right and he is wrong.
The Mystery woman in white:
Towards the start, she appears to help the cops. Initiating this process by throwing stones at them to grab attention. Just when Jong-Goo tries to use her as a witness, she disappears. She however, appears at important intervals in the film. The scene with the Shaman and with Goo towards the end are the most crucial. During the scene with Jong-Goo, she does not let him enter the house.
Now this could mean two things:
- She does not want him to lose his life. She probably thinks he’s important for the town and wants him to live. As his daughter is (at the moment) killing his mother and wife. She probably stops him because she knows he could get killed as well. Considering the fact that she’s possessed, this is possible.
- The hair pin raises the doubts. The fact that it was with her certainly is a reason to doubt her. Or, was she trying to free the little girl from the devil? If she was not, it was only a battle of egos between the Japanese man, the white woman and the shaman.
- if the hair pin was a reason to suspect her she also probably did not want Goo to get inside as he would STOP her from killer his family. But this is contrary to what she says. She says “If you go in your whole family will perish”
The Young Priest:
The young priest is looking for answers. He’s the nephew of Jong-Goo’s side kick. According to an earlier scene, he’s not yet a priest. He is LEARNING.
This explains him going to the devil’s den towards the end. He is young and he is ready to explore. In a way, the film is trying to say, “Only those learning and still young are trying to find answers and make a change. The ones with the topmost post / position in the hierarchy is one of “hands up! I can’t do anything for you”
Rest of the film
Most of the film is open to interpretation. The best touch to the story is the mushroom case. This is also a mystery. Na Hong-jin attacks the practicality inside you. As in, if you believe all this was not possible and you’re a cynical person, you definitely think it’s something to do with the mushrooms.
The film also has strong references to religion using symbols such the ram head, black dog, etc. I haven’t dived into any of these things. All these things were smartly used by the filmmaker. However, I have tried to analyse it as a film. I’m not knowledgeable about those symbols but I suggest you check the internet. You’ll find a million answers with no guarantee about the truth. The deep overall impact is what needs to be understood.
The Japanese man offers black hens while the Shaman (during exorcism) offers white ones. The colours are important symbols considering the woman wore white (this could be a reason to NOT suspect her) as the rest of the film divides black and white as good and bad.
The fishing reference is crucial to the story. It simply means when the devil looks for a “body” it could be any “body”. It’s like fishing. You don’t know what you are going to catch.
Beyond this all, something brilliant that hit me was that the entire film is a statement on crime.
“WHAT KIND OF A FUCKER KILLS PEOPLE?”
This is a line used by Jong-Goo’s mother. This is huge statement on crime because Na Hong-jin could be trying to say every criminal is possessed by something. It does not necessarily mean a ghost or something as dark as what The Wailing is speaking about. But every normal crime, every murder happens due to something taking over the person. This was an idea that got an impetus as soon as Jong-Goo’s sidekick killed his family members. The priest is told “After all he’s a victim”. Let’s think about it for a second. He just murdered his family. But he is a victim. Yes, because he is taken over by something and he cannot control himself.
Hands down, The Wailing is one of the best horror films ever made. It’s shockingly good. Na Hong-jin is shockingly good. Every performance is shockingly good. It all comes together gorgeously for him.