Sacred extrication in horror texts is an omnipresent generic convention whose ubiquity and linear trajectory can be traced from the earliest expressionist varieties to more contemporary exemplifications wherein the quintessence of devout holy faculty can expel inherently spiritual apparitions of evil. Indeed, these sacred agents — often coded as ecclesiastical priests, shamans, or rabbis — shed the constraints of human virtue and aptitude to exhibit singularly miraculous feats. Though their doctrinal underpinnings vacillate, the very nature of transnational cinema has dissipated borders and delineated the procedure of demonic expulsion in fundamentally similar terms– these divine emancipators are exorcists.
Regardless of the country of origin, horror films — particularly those with distinct incorporation of devils and possession — have collectively acquiesced to the same sanctified hand of God in the most literal of ways. Veritably contrived, the sacred champions of faith — the divine liberators — yield the potentiality to be emblematic of a universal conviction to the precepts of determinism, a school of thought whose doctrine reads, “that all actions in the universe are part of a predictable, unbroken chain of events…free will is little more than an illusion” (Biscontini, 2016, p.4). The reverberations of human action, pursuant to deterministic schools of thought, are the result of capacities and variables independent from the human will; that is, morality is an inefficacious pursuit since the narrative of life is preordained.
The critical elements contained therein are subverted in Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016), a mercurial amalgam of horror and rural Korean mythos that concerns a town besieged by paranormal horrors after an enigmatic Japanese man arrives. While all film is deterministic in a sense (audience members have no means by which to actively shape the narrative), Na Hong-jin deliberately seeks to subvert the conventions of faith-based horror. Divine intervention, in accordance with the narrative he carefully constructs, is not inevitable. Further, Na Hong-jin avers that unconscionable and amoral exhibitions of human nature, though contrary to the ethical frameworks by which most humans live, are necessary.
The Wailing opens with the biblical quote “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:37–39) before shifting to a graphic murder scene. From there, the film follows Jong-goo (Kwok Do-won), a police officer on patrol in a rural mountain town in South Korea as he investigates a series of bizarre murders ostensibly traced to the arrival of an eccentric Japanese medicine man (Jun Kunimura). Myriad residents claim, however outlandishly, that they have seen this man — known only as the Japanese Stranger — strip down in the woods, feast on the blood of animals, and hypnotize bystanders with pulsating crimson eyes. Further complicating matters is the ethereal manifestations of a young woman, Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee), after every murder or suicide.
Jong-goo, a devout non-believer, initially dismisses these claims as nothing more than folktales, though he soon acquiesces to the collective paranoia, holding that “if everyone is talking about him, there must be a good reason.” Jong-goo’s daughter is subsequently afflicted with the inscrutable ailment, and after requesting the aid of both an eager shaman, Il-gwang, and a reluctant priest, Yang Yi-sam (portrayed by Hwang Jung-min and Kim Do-yoon, respectively) to no avail, he chases the Stranger down in his car and appears to kill him. Jong-goo’s daughter does not recover, though, and he fears that he may have killed the wrong man.
The Wailing effectively penetrates social ailments and religious fears while framing longstanding moral traditions as inefficacious and unnecessary. The other is an intruder that seeks to disrupt faith and canonical wisdom. In its astute explication of religious narrative, The Wailing further reinforces age-old notions of an Old Testament God whose favor only extends as far as one’s faith. The God in The Wailing will intervene and bestow the requisite miracle upon the downtrodden only if they internalize sufficient faith and virtue. Deterministically, this God is in control but with singular limitations on how far His providence extends. Fear is good and will compel individuals to make the appropriate decision, and only then will God intervene on their behalf.
Pragmatically, the film itself is uncommonly dense, and for the full impact of The Wailing to be appreciated, it needs to be seen uninterrupted, without extraneous noise or diversions. Contemporary viewing culture all but dictates that The Wailing will not be seen that way, particularly since in the West, The Wailing never saw a theatrical release, one of the few sanctuaries for serious filmgoers. As it stands, though, The Wailing is still singularly poignant, terrifying, and respectful of sacred texts. The film takes its religious roots seriously, it takes evil in the world seriously, and beyond all else, it embodies a faith seldom seen in cinema.
The Wailing is an apparatus of what the public wants. Na Hong-jin endeavors to validate the myth of blind faith and invalidate the myth of agnosticism; everything about the nature of God, the film avers, is made known. Na Hong-jin films The Wailing tendentiously and imbues the film with distinctly South Korean ethos that, despite their avowed intention, feel far more universal than even Hong-jin may have considered.
The Wailing is film as mythmaking, namely the delineation of how faith, miracles, and the deterministic nature of divine intervention are inexorable components of life and how the self-aggrandizing folly of thinking to know better yields only destructive ends. Morality absent faith has no value. Na Hong-jin demystifies the often-fastidious biblical narrative by proclaiming that an Old Testament God is real, and necessary, to curb the hubris and impiety of contemporary humankind. Right or wrong, The Wailing will terrify you into trying to decide.
Biscontini, T. (2016). Determinism. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Chad Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 with his Master of Arts. He works in behavioral health and has been a horror fan since birth. His favorites include Scream, Halloween, Alien, and tawdry ’80s slasher films. You can find him on Twitter at @chaddiscollins.
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