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.” – Luke 24:37-39, NIV.
Several years ago, director Na Hong-jin found himself in the unenviable position of attending the funerals of several of his closest friends. As he recounts it, nothing seemed quite so vacuously evil like the sudden and unexpected death of his loved ones. In his grief, he started re-asking the same questions that some of his films had already explored: “Why did they have to be victims of all people? I already had the answers for the ‘how.’ What I had to find out was the ‘why?’”
Na is a self-professed Christian, and even though he admits that he is not nearly as devout as some in his family (namely, the missionaries), his faith has afforded him some space to reckon with suffering, even if incompletely. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder what the practitioners of various religions had to say about the inexplicable and powerful evil that is death. So, in the intervening months, Na met with Buddhist monks, Catholic priests (admittedly Christian), and all manner of Eastern shamans. What became clear to him on a personal level (and subsequently to us as an audience) is that there’s something about death that just isn’t normal. All of the spiritual systems he encountered in his search strive to reckon with it but are ultimately overpowered by it. Death stalks us all as a supernatural force—an alien power that the entire human race with all our religious variants try to understand, defy, and conquer. So, the ultimate question seems to be, “Can Death itself be put to death?”
The result of Na’s spiritual exploration is The Wailing (2016), a film that winds through faith and doubt; angels and demons; life and death like a meandering river through a quiet, little valley. Clocking in at a surprisingly brisk 150 minutes, Na takes the audience on a marvelously-paced, perception-altering metaphysical epic that somehow manages to stay within the borders of its setting: the small Korean village of Gokseong (As an interesting aside and with the help of Joo-Wang John Lee, one of our eagle-eyed readers, the movie’s Korean title, Gokseong, is literally translated as “wailing.” But it’s a near-homonym for the Korean word, goksun, which roughly translates to “curvature.” Now this may all be coincidence, but I think it’s interesting to consider the village’s name as a kind of signpost of both the terrifying and winding plot points and religious themes to come). But it’s precisely in this relatively unimportant location with its relatively unimpressive people that the battle between Heaven and Hell breaks forth.
The film’s opening image is the above passage of Luke’s Gospel. Na asks us to inhabit the mind of the disciples encountering the risen Christ for the first time. “Can death really be overcome, or is this just a cruel apparition that’s come to haunt us?” This is the question he asks us to mull over for the film’s duration.
After an eerie beginning (a lone fisherman ominously double-hooking a worm on his fishing rod), the film transitions to a rather idyllic setting. A cellphone alarm sounds at dawn in a humble Korean hanok where we meet our protagonist, Jong-goo, a listless police sergeant who struggles to get out of his bed to investigate the scene of a homicide. Throughout the movie, we get the impression that Jong-goo just kind of… floats through life. His mother-in-law, his wife, and his daughter constantly remind him of how he should act and think about almost everything. But he doesn’t seem to mind. And his work life is similar, albeit with a bit more hostility. He constantly cowers in the from his austere captain’s criticism before he bullies his hapless deputy to pick up for his slack. Even when he’s eating with friends on his lunch break, he’s being harangued for how to deal with village hearsay. In the most meaningful aspects of his life, whether personal or professional, he simply drifts along. But, as we soon discover, it’s this overall malaise that becomes his major vulnerability, leaving his spiritual life, or a lack thereof, wide open to diabolical attack.
I think Jong-goo, in many ways, is typical of both the spiritual passivity and gullibility of our age. On one hand, he scoffs at talk of ghosts and devils while sneering at Christian crucifixes and shamanic sagebrush. But inversely, when he becomes prey to malevolent forces himself, he turns to any and every religious solution without any discernment. He’s an avatar, then, both for the unbeliever and for the credulous. And it’s exactly this noncommittal spirituality that will shatter his life.
As Jong-goo arrives (and late, of course) on the crime scene, he encounters perhaps the most hair-raising sight in the village’s history: the murderer sits handcuffed on the porch in a zombie-like trance. It’s hard to tell if he’s alive or dead (or maybe neither). His eyes are cloudy and his mouth hangs agape, while his body is smeared with dried blood and his skin is covered in gruesome boils. The investigators mumble in stunned whispers, struggling to figure out why this unassuming man would slaughter his own family and leave their remains scattered around their home. Jong-goo and his fellow officers stare in terrified awe. Nothing about this makes any sense.
And things only get worse: we see burned corpses, bodies hanging from trees, and cannibalistic strangers prowling through the forrest. The decent people of this idyllic village are starting to go insane and butchering their loved ones before they themselves succumb to a terminal trance. It’s up to Jong-goo to start piecing together the disparate connections. And he starts by gathering anecdotal evidence from some of the town’s most notorious gossips. But all their theories seem cartoonishly implausible. Only one explanation seems to be even vaguely scientific: this epidemic is all drug-induced—the awful consequences of a bad batch of mushrooms making their way through the village. Presumably, the hallucinogens in question are coming from the same herb shop in town, and Jong-goo shows up to question the herbalist. But immediately the shop owner deflects to a strange Japanese man he saw in the woods, naked and wolfing down a deer carcass.
This Japanese man, entirely unnamed, is already notorious in the community for giving off some seriously weird vibes. All Jong-goo knows about him is that he’s seen him at one of the crime scenes. So maybe he is a person of interest. And speaking of suspicious people, viewers also meet a mysterious young woman, Moo-myeong (in Korean, literally “No Name), who always seems to materialize out of nowhere around the murder scenes. Rumors about the Japanese man and the young woman abound. All of it sounds superstitious. Ghosts and demons and all. But Jong-goo doesn’t buy any of it. That is, at least, until these strange encounters seem to follow him home, where his daughter Hyo-jin starts to manifesting the initial stages of the same madness.
With all possible leads exhausted and Hyo-jin’s condition worsening, Jong-goo turns to the expertise of a local shaman (at his mother’s-in-law prompting, of course) while his deputy recruits his own skittish nephew, a Catholic deacon in training. Both spiritual guides come to the same conclusion: the disease that’s tearing the community apart isn’t natural. It’s the work of an angry and wicked spirit.
In two of the movie’s more memorable scenes, the confident and surprisingly modern shaman (first arriving at Jong-goo’s house in a sports car and wearing a slim-fitting turtle neck and suit combo) dons his traditionally ceremonial garb, dancing wildly to the beat of drums, juggling daggers, and taunting the demon to leave Hyo-jin’s body. Na’s presentation of these scenes are powerful. They pulsate with a terrifyingly primal power. They shake us viewers out of our own Western agnosticism, as they hearken back to an ancient Eastern knowledge of a wildly enchanted world. But ultimately, the shamanistic efforts are futile.
Another scene reveals that the young deacon (and by extension, the exorcising efforts of the Catholic Church) is equally ineffective. When Jong-goo and the deacon discover a nesting ground with mysterious and haunting pagan imagery, perhaps even the source of the town’s ailment, the deacon is totally overcome by fear. Jong-goo then vainly tries to solicit the real power source, the priest, but is only met with shrugging shoulders. The Church has nothing to offer Jong-goo’s tormented daughter either.
Neither paganism nor Catholicism seem to be a match for the demonic powers that terrorize this helpless village. Like Jong-goo, the villagers seem to turn to one or the other with complete impartiality. You might expect there to be some kind of clash between these two factions within the community, but Na mixes and matches aspects of them both into an ultimately ineffective syncretism. And I think this is an intentional attempt on Na’s part to suggest that these things cannot be haphazardly chosen in times of crises. They’re not simply instrumental solutions or medicinal cures that can be use apathetically at our discretion.
Fast forward to the end of the movie. Hyo-jin is on the brink of a fatal possession, and Jong-goo still doesn’t know what to do. The unnamed man and the woman with no name are finally revealed, and they stand diametrically opposed. Their true identities are still a mystery to him and to us. But one thing is for sure: one is a devil and the other is an angel. Jong-goo is desperately trying to see the difference. He oscillates between doubt and faith in who they say they are and what they say the truth is. He has to make a choice, but he has no idea if he’s making the right one. And course, neither do we.
Now without altogether spoiling the movie, the denouement unfolds exactly when Jong-goo makes his fateful choice, and everyone is finally unmasked. And just as we trying to wrap our minds around the stunning revelations, the movie ends! As the credits roll, we are left with ten thousand questions. After revisiting the film several times, I’m still not quite sure what to believe. All the maddening details still don’t quite add up. We know, as Na would say, “the how” of the movie through it’s characters and plot. But now we are left to ask “the why” or the what-does-this-all-mean?
Flesh and Bones…
After my most recent viewing, I borrowed a book on shamanism from a friend of mine. In fact, it is the book on shamanism by the noted 20th century historian of religion, Mircea Eliade. I was desperate to find out more about the Korean tradition of shamanism, hoping to discover some kind of interpretive key to the movie. But what I found just opened more questions than it answered. Only in reading Wendy Doniger’s (a student of Eliade) preface did I finally have a breakthrough, even if it wasn’t one I expected. She summarizes Eliade’s work not as the impartial documentation of archaic peoples’ quirky and obsolete rituals. But instead, Eliade’s work empathetically reveals that shamanism is the valid human practice of reckoning with a world that is, indeed, filled with ghosts and spirits and demons. Shamanism isn’t an outmoded religious model. It’s a pre-modern science of how the spiritual world functions! Eliade knew that the ancients were insightful enough to know that, in some inscrutable way, gods do walk amongst us cunningly disguised in mortal garb. His entire academic career tried to make sense of this phenomena: how do we as humans discern the spirit from the flesh? And in his own cinematic way, this is exactly what Na is attempting to do, as well.
Like any life riddled with suffering, The Wailing leaves us with more questions than answers. I’ve spent a lot of time since wondering about this. How do I, as a Christian, make sense of this story—of these kind of stories. The Wailing may be fictional, yes, but it’s not really fantastical. And it’s point is salient as ever: how do we deal with suffering, isolation, and death? Perhaps more to the point, who do we turn to in these inevitable times of crisis? Who can we trust, and how can we know?
In the 21st century, we seem impossibly removed from the reality of the demonic, so a return to the Lucan passage at the beginning of them movie probably seems counterintuitive. But it’s not. It’s the one place where we (along with Thomas and the other doubting disciples) can indeed touch and see that the one who stands before us is really Jesus. Against all odds, he is alive again from the dead. Thomas’ confession rings out through the centuries and is now ours to utter, “My Lord and my God!”
For all the complexities of faith and doubt, I think the Christian response is fairly simple: we find hope and truth in the reality that Christ is now actually alive. We can and do encounter Him in real ways even two thousand years after he first walked the earth. It’s vital for those who are tormented by any and all principalities and powers to touch and see that the body of Christ is not an incorporeal deception or a cleverly disguised phantom. His flesh is real, and his life means that the final power of death has been stopped!
His body is in the world today. It is found in the Church—the comforting hands and the sure feet swift to bring good news and set captives free. It is found in the Bread and the Cup— the sign and the signifier given as an assurance that we will emerge from the grave with new and never-ending life. And it is found in the Word—that which is made manifest in human history in the person and work of Jesus Christ and is now spoken over the dead to the resurrection of life eternal.
The absence of any meaningful community of faith in this film is the very weakness that allows Jong-goo and his family to be felled by evil. No amount of orthodox prayers or creative hexes could be offered to any gods or monsters to stop the power of death. And as we are likewise faced with the ever-present threat of an unrelenting evil, Na’s film serves as a powerful cinematic revelation; a personal plea to find faith and hope and love in something more powerful than death—in Someone who’s pierced flesh and resurrected bones now lives and prays on our behalf, both now and always.
- Interview: ‘The Wailing’ Director Na Hong-jin On Death, Genre, Religion & Comedy
- ‘The Wailing’: Thriller Posing Spiritual Questions