“The Wailing” is a 2016 South Korean occult horror/psychological thriller film about the mystery of a series of murder cases in a small village. Written and directed by Na Hong-jin. 156 minutes.
The original title “Gokseong” has a double meaning: Gokseong as a place-name that really exists in South Korea and the word for “wailing”.
In the village of Gokseong in the northeast of South Jeolla Province, South Korea, a mysterious man (Jun Kunimura) comes from Japan, and he settles in the mountains. After that, a series of mysterious murder cases have happened, in which some villagers present skin disorders like eczema, and they die after slaughtering their families.
As a result of the investigation by experts, it is suspected to be due to magic mushrooms, while it has been rumored that the Japanese stranger living in the mountains causes the cases.
A policeman who investigates the cases, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) meets a mysterious young woman Moo-myeong (“no name” in Korean) (Chun Woo-hee) at the crime scene. She tells him she witnessed the case and the stranger is an evil spirit and the culprit of the cases.
Jong-goo comes to the stranger’s house with his police partner Oh Seong-bok (Son Gang-guk) and Oh Seong-bok’s nephew Yang I-sam (Kim Do-yoon), who is a deacon of the Christian church and speaks Japanese.
They investigate the house when the stranger is out. They find a worship room in which there are an altar, sacrificial animals, and pictures of the dead villagers and their belongings. In the room, Oh Seong-bok finds a shoe with Jong-goo’s daughter Hyo-jin’s name on it, and he shows it to Jong-goo. Jong-goo becomes convinced that the stranger causes the cases by cursing the villagers.
Hyo-jin’s personality changes completely after she has a high fever, and she starts swearing at others. She has also started showing a skin symptom similar to those of the murderers.
Jong-goo’s mother-in-law seeks help from a shaman, Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min). Il-gwang asks for 10 million won for doing a ritual to kill the stranger. Il-gwang does a death-hex ritual, but his ritual ends in failure.
To protect his daughter Hyo-jin and his village, Jong-goo tries to attack and kill the stranger with his friends.
“The Wailing” is an enigmatic film based on the Christian Bible. It also incorporates the elements of East Asian shamanism, exorcism, and zombie horror.
The following sentences of chapter 24 of “The Gospel according to Luke” of the New Testament are quoted in the opening of the film:
“They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a spirit. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 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 that I have.’”
In the context of the Bible, the stranger who appears in the film seems like a messianic character, like Jesus Christ, while at the same time he also seems like an evil existence.
The film ends up without solving the mystery of the cases. Is the magic mushroom the culprit of the cases, or is it the evil spirit? Everything is ambiguous. How to interpret it is up to the viewer.
In a scene of the ending part of the film, the stranger transforms into the devil in front of Yang I-sam because Yang I-sam is a Christian believer and his mind has been filled with suspicion about the stranger.
“The Wailing” can be seen as a film that depicts the fear of uncertainty of recognition, i.e., the fear that our understanding and judgment of things depend on prejudice and preconception in our minds.
The film won many awards, such as five awards including Best Director in the 37th Blue Dragon Film Awards.