The horror film 'The Wailing' (2016) by Na Hong-jin delivers a quasi-hysterical bloody rural ghost story which appears to stage a fight between good and evil (often being ambivalent about their distinction), but something more alarming and historically sinister seems to lurk beneath the surface.
Surely the demonisation of the single foreign character (a Japanese man) in Na's 'The Wailing' is not accidental. Set in the idyllic lushly vegetated mountains of South Korea, in a small community where everyone knows eachother, the presence of a Japanese newcomer is suspicious. Soon enough, the elderly Japanese man is depicted as a spooky loner, a rapist, a ghost, a killer, an evil shaman, and eventually as the devil himself. This representation is blatantly xenophobic, but the truth of the matter is that for the older generation of Koreans who either remember or grew up with grandparents who experienced the Japanese occupation, the representation of the Japanese male as evil, perverted, violent and immoral will touch an inner reality and fear. The film could possibly have treated a very important and complex matter concerning Korean-Japanese cultures and relations, but unfortunately it is not subtle about any of the cliches (and real facts) that dominate Korean culture about the Japanese.
In my opinion, the Japanese man in the film The Wailing (2016) is the return of repressed Korean history: the ghost of Korean suffering, humiliation, sexual exploitation, cultural colonisation and violence under the rule of the Japanese empire.
The sexual nature of one of the central character's drawings (the little girl Hyo-jin, daughter of the protagonist), her vulgar language and the insinuation of sexual molestation indicated by her bruises under her skirt caused by the Japanese stranger, the skin disease and madness following the villagers' possession by the same character, as well as the clear depiction of the same man as a rapist in a separate scene, become politically charged when we consider the film in the context of the main stumbling blocks in the diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea: the sexual exploitation of millions of Korean women who were captured by the Japanese and turned into sex slaves (euphimistically called 'comfort women') for Japanese soldiers. They were kept in cells, raped systematically, some contracted syphilis, some became mentally disturbed.
In addition, the film depicts a cultural and spiritual conflict represented in the battle between different religious practices and traditions. A Korean shaman and his ritual appear to have an understanding of the situation and offer a solution to the demonic possession of the little girl (and the entire village). However, the main character (Officer Jong-goo) interrupts the shamanic dance and the Japanese stranger (the evil) survives the harm he suffers (remotely) from the shamanic ritual. Next, officer Jong-goo goes to a Christian priest for advice. The priest instructs him to take his daughter to a doctor. While the practices of the Japanese man are depicted as demonic, Western religion appears to have little understanding of the situation, to have lost touch with the soul and instead suggest physical healing to spiritual problems.
Is the director suggesting that the Korean people have lost touch with and trust in their own spiritual roots and tradition? Is he making a comment about the popular Christian movements in contemporary South Korea and the inability of the West's intervertions to keep an equilibrium in the relationships between the two neighbours (Japan and S Korea)? If we choose to look at the film through a political lens, I think all these are hinted at and the film begins to read like a horrific allegory.
A curious moment in the film arrives when the evil Japanese character progressively transforms into the devil with each photograph he takes with his Minolta camera (an iconic Japanese brand). Like many other moments in the film, it feels heavy-handed and strangely funny. Is it a sarcastic comment on the relationship the Japanese have with technology and especially photography? Is it a straight-forward demonisation and fear of Japanese technological advancement?
The police officer's mother - the grandmother in the film - appears to be the only strong-minded, assertive character in the film, whose will, instinct and logic of care are unshaken. If only the film represented a more feminine perspective and gave her a stronger voice, then violence, male hysteria and female suffering would have had a different balance and found a better resolution. It would also have been interesting to have seen a direct confrontation, exchange or reconciliation between the Korean grandmother and the Japanese stranger who is of the same generation, both of whom share a traumatic historical moment involving the two nations.
As it stands, we navigate the film through the very conservative view-point of officer Jong-goo who represents male and state authority stunned, panic-stricken and lost; unnerved by neighboring Japan and its technological advancements, despairing about the dissolution of Korean tradition and value system, haunted by its unresolved past.
It is true that while German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970 knelt down during his visit to a former Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw, where World War II started when Germany invaded, Japan is often scorned for its lack of remorse and for not apologising for the war crimes it is responsible for. But a recent pubic apology was given to Korean people by Japan for the grave matter of 'comfort women' which has been a stumbling block in diplomatic relations between the two nations. But films like 'The Wailing' are terrifying reminders that while histories may be repressed, forgotten or simply not passed on to younger generations, the haunting of traumatic memories is transgenerational.