OP-ROB RATING: ALL-STAR
At its core, Na Hong Jin’s 2016 film “The Wailing” is a Christian movie focused on the idea of faith. Christian movies are often overwhelmingly bad: they are preachy, self-righteous, and totally contrived. These factors are partially because most Christian movies are supposed to be preachy. However, no skeptical moviegoer wants to be preached to, especially if he/she were not already a convert before viewing. And I will be frank with you all, I really dislike Christian movies. It seems every year I am subject to a trailer for something in the wheelhouse of “Heaven is for Real” or “Miracles from Heaven” or “God’s Not Dead”. The movies always look cheesy, and it is torture just sitting through the two-minute preview. However, “The Wailing” is not that kind of Christian movie. Rather, it is a far more effective examination of real faith, with a top-class horror story as the vehicle for such observation.
The film begins with a quote from the bible from when the resurrected Jesus confronts his disciples in Luke 24: 37-39, “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 my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’” This verse sets the tone for the possession-related plot of the movie, but also serves as a reminder that the bible is full of supernatural happenings, and moments of great doubt. Unlike predecessors such as “The Exorcist” and “The Conjuring”, Hong-jin does not rely solely on a horror plotline. “The Wailing” blends many different genres and starts off with a basic detective-style mystery: a rural Korean village is subject to a series of strange murders perpetrated by people who have all developed the kind of blistering skin rash. One of the detectives on the case is Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a pudgy, clumsy character who couldn't be trusted to change a light bulb. His fumbling around is the cause for many moments of humor throughout the movie, another break from the typical horror flick. However, Jong-goo begins to focus himself when his daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) is infected by the abnormal rash and starts acting violently.
Around town, the gossip is that poisonous mushrooms are causing the abnormal rash and violent outbursts, but a juicier rumor suggests that the new arrival of an older Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) in the village is to blame. Jong-goo investigates the desolate, mountaintop home of the Japanese man, and what he finds suggests evil activity. When Hyo-jin’s behavior and health become critical, he is pushed to the limits of his reason and must rely on faith. However, there are many options, and we never know ourselves that might help exorcise Hyo-jin.
One of the greatest assets of “The Wailing” is its extraordinary complexity. Almost every scene is doused in symbolism, whether that is Christian or Buddhist or Mythological. I’m not sure I truly understand many scenes in the movie, and had to take a long pause after the credits rolled to retrace what happened. This dynamic can ruin certain films. If there is too much going on, then how can a movie properly approach one of its themes? But, “The Wailing” seeks, and I believe succeeds, in exploring the question of faith in Christianity. If the viewer were too easily led to any one conclusion, such as in Martin Scorsese’s faith-exploration “Silence”, then would the film really be about faith? True faith is brutal choice often drenched in doubt.
“The Exorcist” is the original great film of its variety and also has notes of Christianity. But in “The Exorcist” we never doubt that Father Karras is good, while the demon inside of Regan is evil. We don't have to question what needs to happen. The film is shocking, and scares you into being wanting to be closer to God, but it doesn't force any big questions. In the final few minutes of “The Wailing”, the question of who/what is good and evil is still up for grabs. There is a local Buddhist shaman who has tried to help Hyo-jin, there is a mysterious woman who has confronted Jong-goo with timely information at various points, and then there is the Japanese man, who may or may not be innocent. All of these questions lead to a thrilling finish, and a fitting conclusion to film that centers on true faith: which, as none of those sappy Christian movies would reveal, ultimately comes down to a gamble.