One thing the police, the church, and doctors all have in common: in trying to solve the problems of humanity, they assert an air of authority so their commands and advice are likely to be followed without question. 2016's The Wailing (곡성) destabilises all three, exposing faith people didn't even know they had while undermining it. It's a sad, funny, and frightening story smartly constructed.
One of the very effective choices made by the filmmakers is in the film's central protagonist, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a young police sergeant in a remote mountain village in South Korea. He's slightly overweight, has a soft face and a perpetually dim, anxious expression. He looks more like an underachieving office drone than a cop. One imagines that he's never had to deal with anything worse than petty theft or parking tickets. It's credible, though--this sleepy little village hardly seems to require Eliot Ness. His bossy little daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), casually directs the man about food and manners like something from a broad comedy. Certainly, Jong-goo feels more like a protagonist from a comedy, a Keystone Cop, maybe, but the film never takes the tone to a level that artificial. But Jong-goo is like a comedy protagonist lost in a horror film.
Certainly he's not equipped to handle the sudden outbreak of a strange disease that disfigures people with bloody sores and turns them into mindless creatures, hungry for human flesh. At the first crime scene, he and his partner sit discussing the problem when a strange, beautiful woman (Chun Woo-hee) starts throwing rocks at them.
She says the culprit is a Japanese man, played by Japanese star Jun Kunimura, who recently moved into an isolated, decrepit little house in the mountains. She says the man is a ghost and we see him in dreams or visions wearing only a fundoshi and eating large animals raw. In one case, he approaches the viewer and his eyes glow red.
But we've seen too many unreliable narrators in films to trust this right away. And, indeed, it seems the Japanese man may be a victim or even a shaman trying to stop the true perpetrator who put the curse on the village. The history between Japan and Korea is never directly addressed but the tension over the fact that he's a foreigner is present in the portrayal. Do people distrust him just because he's a foreigner, and is he a red herring for that reason? The only person in the village who can speak to him is a Catholic deacon who spent part of his childhood in Japan and so knows the language. This isn't the first reference to Christianity in the film, though. The film begins with a quote from the bible, Luke 24:37-39:
But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me and see me; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.
There's also a shaman named Il-Gwang (Hwang Jung-min) whom Jong-goo's mother hires once Jong-goo's daughter becomes ill. Il-Gwang immediately finds a dead crow in one of the large pots they use to store food so this guy, at least, seems to know what he's doing. Right? One immediately starts to think about other ways Il-Gwang could have known what was in the pot.
At every stage, every source to which Jong-goo turns for answers demonstrates some real insight while also being arguably dubious. This would be frustrating and frightening enough if time weren't a factor. As it is, the disease seems poised to take out the whole village and no-one at the hospital seems to have any idea how to combat it. The shaman suggests one solution that seems medically dangerous and Jong-goo, being a police officer, has a front row seat to his own institution being undermined when he's so cognisant of his own helplessness.
The film reminded me a little of The Exorcist but destabilised faith in not just the church but in any means of combating a harmful influence is a source of great tension in the story. The end of the film drives its point home with a keen sense of the tragedy this film with a comedy protagonist turns into.