Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Personal Demons

Film: The Wailing (Gok-seong)
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

I’ve said for a long time that one of the more interesting national cinemas going is South Korea. South Korean films, at least those that get exported, tend to be interesting, smart, and well-made; evidence Parasite. One of the genres in which South Korea excels is horror. The Wailing is one of those films that people point to not merely to suggest just how good South Korea’s film industry is, but as an example of their exemplary horror movies.

The real question about The Wailing is what kind of horror movie it is. Is it about possession? A haunting? Some sort of plague? It’s kind of all of those and none of those. We start in a small Korean village called Gok-seong (hence the Korean name of the film) where a rash of bizarre murders is taking place. Police officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is one of the people charged with investigating the crimes. What he discovers is that a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) has recently moved to the village, and the problems started soon after. He also hears rumors about the man that seem to coincide with disturbing dreams he’s been having.

Problems for Jong-goo really begin when it seems that his daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) is suffering from the same strange spells and violent episodes as the affected people in the area. His mother-in-law calls in a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to perform a ritual exorcism, but even this doesn’t seem to work. Jong-goo is also plagued by the appearance of a mysterious woman who may be trying to help him with the plague crimes and may also be responsible for them.

The Wailing is an interesting watch, and also a surprisingly long one. Horror movies, by their very nature, tend to be a lot shorter than dramas and a lot of other genres. It can be hard to maintain the intensity needed for a lot of horror for any length of time, and yet The Wailing is a touch longer than 150 minutes. It pulls this off pretty well and never really gets overwhelmed by its length.

There are moments, though, that don’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the film. The Wailing very much wants to be a serious horror movie, and it is for the most part, but there are moments in it that come very close to tracking as comedy. I can’t figure out if this is intentional or not, and I’m not entirely sure that the moments aren’t actually unintentionally funny. For instance, there is a scene where Jang-goo and several others encounter a man who is evidently possessed of the evil in the village. The fight is terrifying—a couple of characters are horribly wounded and the man himself is clearly in extreme, tortuous pain. And yet at one point, he breaks a shovel in half and throws part of it at Jong-goo, and it’s like a classic piece of slapstick. In the same scene, the man gets a rake stuck in his head, and I’m reminded of the dart hit Shaun in the forehead in Shaun of the Dead. Was this intentional?

I have to think that it wasn’t, and that either the tone just isn’t quite right in the film or something is happening in the translation from one culture to another. The example above is just the most memorable of these moments in the film; there are several others that I can only read as being comedic. That’s difficult for me to grok with a movie that is this dark in so many ways. And yet there’s clear comedy moments in films like The Host as well, and that one is pretty dark, too. There are so many in this film that I genuniely considered tagging this as a comedy as well as a horror movie.

I think the truth is that I probably need to watch The Wailing a second time. The story here is a very good one, and there’s a lot that I like and want to like in it. But this issue with humor is really nagging me. If it’s unintentional, then there is a real disconnect between the story and the way the story is portrayed. If it’s intentional, then the story is very oddly pitched tonally. I’m not sure which is the worse crime.

Why to watch The Wailing: It’s a great example of why Korean film is so great right now.
Why not to watch: There are moments that seem to border on unintentional comedy.


  1. I'd have to research this, but I'm going to guess that the name "Gokseong" comes from the hanja (kanji) 谷城, i.e., "valley castle" or "valley fortress." There are plenty of Korean cities with "-seong" in their names. On the east coast, for example, is the city of Goseong, which sounds almost British when translated into English: Highcastle (高 = high; 城 = castle/fortress). Lots of old, crumbling fortress walls all over the peninsula.

    Song Kang-ho is in everything. I don't actually watch many Korean movies, but almost all the ones I've seen have had Song in them. I haven't seen this one, though; maybe I'll check it out.

  2. Whoops—that's not Song Kang-ho in that picture. My bad.

  3. And the "Gok-seong" in question, for the film's title, is "哭聲," which is literally "wailing." (gok/哭 = weeping; seong/聲 = sound/noise) Hooray for belated research.

    1. I'll answer all three at once.

      I was unaware of the translation of...the symbols I'm not going to figure out how to type. "Gok-seong," while evidently being a literal translation of The Wailing is also the name of the village in the movie--clearly an intended double meaning.

      Honestly, for a brief moment, I thought it as Song Kang-ho, too. It does seem like he's in 50% of the Korean movies I've seen.

    2. I'd have to agree re: the double-meaning thing. Korean vocabulary is about 70-80% Chinese loan words, and because Korean isn't a tonal language like Chinese, there are many disparate Chinese characters that sound exactly the same when pronounced in Korean. This makes Korean a great language for punning, and since I know this sort of Chinese-character double entendre stuff has been done a lot in Korean culture, I'd say you're absolutely right. "Valley Fortress" (谷城) is very plausibly a city name as I explained above, and pairing that up with wailing (哭聲), as a pun, is certainly in tune with your double-meaning claim.

      As for writing/typing Chinese: I use Naver Dictionary, which is popular in Korea, whenever I need to look up hanja. Naver allows you to hand-write the character, if you know how to write it, in a little field that uses AI to "read" your handwriting and present you with a menu of characters to choose from. Just click on the one you meant. My penmanship when I write Chinese by hand on paper is pretty good, but it's terrible when I'm using a mouse or a touch pad. Naver can read it all the same. You can also find characters phonetically if you know how they sound. Korean uses an alphabet, so phonetic renderings are easy. And as with Chinese dictionaries, you can also look characters up by radical, by number of strokes in a radical (or in the whole character), etc.

      I also use Google Translate because it offers both traditional and modern simplified Chinese. (Korean hanja is purely old-school traditional, which is why "country" in hanja is "國" and not "国.") Either way, whether with Naver or with Google, I just copy and paste. It's a pain in the ass, but I don't know how to type Chinese directly into a field using only a Qwerty keyboard.

    3. Truthfully, a decade or more ago, I would have been much more likely to use the hanja, which I would have called kanji, as someone who was studying Japanese. Honestly, I didn't know they were called hanja in Korean--I only knew the word "kanji," which I figured couldn't be right--although "hanja" and "kanji" are clearly cognates.

      My Japanese is not just rusty, though, but rusted shut.