Old Man In A Cave
by ETHAN PETERSON
dir. Hong-jin Na
Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) is a policeman in the town of Gokseong, South Korea. He lives with his accomodating, distant wife and his daughter (Kim Hwan-hee). He cheats on his wife with a neighbor (So-yeon Jang) in his car. The sex is disappointing for all involved, and Jong-Goo is relatively surprised when he is able to achieve orgasm. Shortly thereafter, his daughter knocks on the vehicle’s window, and things pretty much spiral downhill from there.
Director Hong-jin Na achieved international notoriety with The Chaser, his debut. The Wailing is structured like a horror film in some ways, but for the most part it is more along the lines of movies like The Witch. This slower pace parallels Japanese horror conventions to avoid jump scares in favor of unfolding tension. In this way The Wailing suggests Na’s previous work, yet in a completely different genre.
The Wailing is engaged with the beautiful sights of Hong-jin Na’s native country. At times, Korea seems like a idyllic refuge, and it is no wonder that a Japanese man comes to live in Jong-Goo’s hometown. Soon after, men and women start to go mad, breaking out in feverish pustules and harming their families in a disturbed rage. Jong-Goo’s daughter has the run of the town and meets up with this Japanese man. Soon after, Jong-Goo finds her irrevocably changed.
Jong-Goo’s wife hires a shaman (Hwang Jun-min) to give the family some insight on what is occurring. He identifies a local woman (Chung Woo-hee) as the culprit and attempts to perform an exorcism on Jong-Goo’s daughter.
The woman places all the blame on the Japanese stranger. “I don’t know what to say,” the man responds, “You just told me I’m the devil.” Jong-Goo can’t decide who to trust — a woman he barely knows, or the shaman who tells him not to believe her.
At time The Wailing almost feels like a reinvention/parody of the Japanese filmmaker Na so clearly admires, Yasujirō Ozu. The environments of the film intrude on one another. Visible walls turn invisible, or fold in on themselves. Jong-Goo moves from space to space and room to room without any expectation of what might allow entry, or make him leave.
Jong-Goo’s flailing policework isn’t much to watch for the first half of the film. In typical Ozu style, the story takes place around him, largely without his permission, and he never notices as much of it as he should. Such a character is as close to an unreliable narrator as you can have in film without outright deceiving your audience. The second half of the film begins when Jong-Goo enters a room to find his daughter eating ravenously, screaming at him for being lazy when just days before she accepted his gifts and promised to keep his secrets.
It is Jong-Goo’s relative unease with the concept of women in general that compromises his ability to save his daughter. The play of the sexes is fascinating in The Wailing. The only true love relationship is the one between Jong-Goo and his daughter, but the lack of faith and trust between he and all the other women in the film corrupts that goodness.
The Wailing is also deeply preoccupied with how much we trust the people in our lives. What they say and tell us in confidence may seem easy to either believe or dismiss, but I don’t think I truly understood how much hinges on that fine line before seeing Hong-Jin Na’s masterpiece. There is also a deeply disconcerting subtext to the supernatural elements of this story: the frightening idea that the person we confide all our secrets to may not even be a human being at all.
Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.