On thought and belief, deception and interpretation, in Hong-jin Na's The Wailing
The Wailing Well Go USA Entertainment
Director: Hong-jin Na
Screenplay: Hong-jin Na
Starring: Do-wan Kwak, Jun Kunimura, Jung-min Hwang, Kim Hwan-hee, Han-Cheol Jo, So-yeon Jang and Woo-hee Chun
Rated R / 2 hours, 36 minutes / 2.35:1
(out of four)
The other guy's story always sounds crazy. It's our own interpretation of events that always makes perfect sense.
So goes one of the most prescient observations in Hong-jin Na's The Wailing, the Korean filmmaker behind The Yellow Sea and The Chaser who returns with his most accomplished work to date. This is a rare crime drama - a rare film in general, for that matter - that is explicitly about thought, and the subconscious and emotional forces that govern it. What moves us, what convinces us of something, what we believe or do not believe, what we accept or do not accept, what influences how we interpret the world we live in.
Thought isn't a linear thing, a fact that for the characters in the film - trying to wade through an increasingly nebulous moral and physiological quandary - becomes all too clear. We put pieces together and try to make them fit as best we can. But it's never a perfect fit. Not even close.
Do we trust what we see - or think we see - with our own eyes? Can we trust what someone has told us? Or something we heard? How much do those things affect what we see or think we see later on? How can we be blinded to reality - and by whom or what? Among its many other virtues, The Wailing can actually serve as a fascinating sort of litmus test for us as viewers, in terms of how and where we're nudged to accept one possibility over another - who we believe, with whom we identify, what explanation makes the most sense to us. Even from the beginning, nothing is quite so simple, but from there it only becomes more impossible for the inhabitants of this mountainside village to fully comprehend. It seems, at first, like an outbreak of sorts. We have one blood-splattered murder scene, and then another. The deaths that start to pile up have a thing or two in common - bloody boils all over the bodies of the perpetrators; wild, inexplicably savage behavior - all of which befuddles the local police force and doctors alike.
The central character and our main set of eyes throughout this ordeal is one such cop, Jong-gu (Do-wan Kwak), who lives with his wife, daughter and mother in a house off a winding dirt road. He's wholly unprepared for this series of events - in fact, it takes him awhile before he's even entirely focused on them. Until they actually hit home, really. He's not a bumbling cop, exactly, but he's no crack detective, either. He's just a generally decent man with generally normal problems - protective of his family, ashamed of his weaknesses and failures, especially when it comes to his daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee, outstanding) and how she sees him. And it is she - as fate and cinematic inevitability would have it - who becomes affected by whatever it is that's been going around this village lately. There is rumored to be a demonic element in play. An expensive shaman is brought in from out of town.
Na utilizes common horror elements - possession, transformation, zombies - and crafts a splendid little genre film with those, but only in the service of a bigger picture that is even more rewarding. It's almost like he's working those genre characteristics and the bigger ideas against each other, serving both as a logistical distraction and a physical embodiment of what's really going on beneath the surface of a horror-tinged crime procedural.
Not long after the first crime scene is discovered - a young couple murdered, perhaps by one another, in their home - Jong-gu and his partner (played by Han-Cheol Jo) are casually discussing it at the office. The partner ominously puts the blame on a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) who's only recently showed up in town. He recounts a story of a local who apparently happened upon the man in the woods - and insists that he was nearly naked, eating the fresh corpse of an animal, his eyes a deep, satanic red. Jong-gu laughs this story off as ridiculous. That guy's blood work came back, he says. He was high on shrooms. There was, clearly, no naked demon with red eyes hanging around in the woods.
But Na makes sure that reported vision is shown to us in vivid, nightmarishly matter-of-fact detail, as if implanting the image into our subconscious - and into Jong-gu's. A bit later on, when he's looking around the crime scene of another murder, he runs into a woman (Woo-hee Chun) who claims to be a witness. He calls it in, and then she disappears, and when he goes looking for her, there outside the building is the Japanese stranger, eyes red, ready to pounce ... and then Jong-gu wakes up in a fright. Whether he believes in the Japanese man's culpability or not, the thought has been planted. And there aren't any other good explanations for this mass of killings ... and his partner insists there were no killings until that guy got to town, so ...
What makes Jong-gu's dream so interesting is that it is, we find out, a conflation of a real event and an imagined one. He really did meet that woman at the crime scene. And he really did call it in. And yet when we see it, the memory of that meeting has been merged with the appearance of, for all intents and purposes, a devil. This scene nicely embodies Na's filmmaking approach here, which is deceptively straightforward. It's usually very clear what we're seeing - witnessing - and the important details are vivid, and myriad. Yet Na stealthily, sometimes invisibly complicates the ways in which we can, or should, interpret what we've seen. There's another key moment that we see twice, in crucially different ways. During a rain storm one night, a naked woman appears at the police station - spooking Jong-gu and his partner - and then disappears. The scene is lit entirely from the outdoors, and we never get a look at the woman's face. Yet when a woman, some time later in the story, goes mad, Jong-gu "remembers" that it was the same woman who appeared on that stormy night. We know, though, that he never got a look at her face, either. (He was hiding underneath his desk, in fact.) The film seems to continually be asking how much our minds - our memories, our prejudices, our beliefs, the limitations of our experience - can trick us. (The way Na cuts scenes together eventually culminates in a sequence of devastating, impossible conflict that brilliantly pays off the ideas he's been exploring and the narrative he's been carefully putting into place.)
Particularly in light of the xenophobia that seems to follow the Japanese man around in this town, the film's ideas and subtext cannot avoid their political relevance, nor their religious applications. As for the truth of what's going on, the man in question - seemingly the prime target, at least if you listen to that one mushroom enthusiast and that cop who believed his tall tale - won't provide any hints. Kunimura's performance makes sure of that, his face perpetually locked in a complacent stare that could either be interpreted as quiet menace or sad-eyed, stoic resignation.
There's a really difficult tonal balance that Na has to wrangle in The Wailing, especially as its frequently very funny opening hour or so - in which the characters' absurd behaviors and shortcomings take center stage from time to time - gives way to more palpable horrors. Its comedic bent turns in on itself as the filmmaker starts to twist and turn his canvas, moving our emotional needle - albeit in different ways for each viewer.
The film is, yes, "manipulative," but only as a feature of its overall design and purpose. It's not just toying with us, but shrewdly exposing some truths about the way we think, and believe, and act as a reaction to both. Over and over, characters are faced with scenes in which they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information to take in. The amount of blood splattered at one crime scene or another. The secret room they discover, full of photographs and totems of countless victims - what Minority Report's Danny Whitwer would call an "orgy of evidence." The inexplicable sight of someone so seemingly incapable of violence committing a savage act. No one is equipped for this. All they can do is the best they know how, and in the face of evil that just might not be enough.