Around the World in 31 Days: South Korea

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Gokseong, or The Wailing (2016) has been staring at me from my Netflix queue for the better part of two years. It came to my attention from correspondence with the academics behind the book Possessed Women, Haunted States: Cultural Tensions in Exorcism Cinema, who seek to catalogue every instance of an exorcism scene in a feature film. At 2.5 hours of running time, it was always daunting to start it, but it is worth the time.

The Wailing (2016)
Country: South Korea
Director & Writer: Hong-jin Na
Notable Cast: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, Chun Woo-hee, Jun Kunimura
Distribution: 20th Century Fox Korea
Production: Side Mirror, Fox International, Production Korea
Plot: Soon after a stranger arrives in a little village, a mysterious sickness starts spreading. A policeman, drawn into the incident, is forced to solve the mystery in order to save his daughter. (Source: imdb)

Commentary: I liked The Wailing a lot, but to me it had a bunch of tonal shifts. In its long running time, we are presented with a serious, anxious horror story that’s broken up by a lead character whose milieu is slightly tragicomic. To my sensibilities Jon-goo (Do-won Kwok) was something like a keystone cop; he’s probably also just a humble Everyman. But cultural divide and all, I don’t know how he was meant to come across or how he should be ‘read.’ One thing is for sure – he loves his daughter and this film is about his tenacious fight for her and his powerlessness in the face of a supernatural possession.

The Wailing has plenty of visual pleasures. In the backdrop of horrific scenes, shabby unkempt homes and humdrum office interiors we have a verdant and lush landscape peppered with rain showers. Color pops out in the movie and I loved it. Wherever in South Korea this is – and apparently it is an area far removed from the metropolis of Seoul – I’d like to go hiking there.
It is both a zombie movie and a possession movie. The two aren’t mutually exclusive (see The Evil Dead series and Spain’s [REC] series.) To the latter point, I really enjoyed the role of the ‘shaman’, who in an amazing scene, conducted a tense exorcism via his religion’s rituals juxtaposed with the torment of Jon-goo’s daughter. I am trying to find out more about what religious tradition this represents in Korea. I’m a sucker for comparative religion in horror, especially in exorcism cinema, and the movie also features what I’m presuming to be a Catholic deacon who is as bumbling and out of his depth as Jon-goo.

Props need to be given to Japanese actor Jun Kunimura (from Audition, a film I hope to cover when I get to Japan in this series), who, as “the stranger” played a chilling vision of a sexual sadist and black magician. That brings me to…

What We’re Afraid Of: Knowing what we know about the Japanese occupation atrocities visited on Korea, especially Korean women, The Wailing becomes a controversial and uncomfortable thing. My slight Googling shows that director Na rejects the conclusion of ‘xenophobia’ and suggest the movie is about being unable to communicate with what you fear. It is very interesting that all these facets of South Korean religion and culture come together, yet they can’t seem to unite and be effective against the evil.


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