Spoiler warning for Gokseong (The Wailing)
A man covered in blood leans against a pillar on the porch outside his hanok-style home. His face is full of blistering red boils as he sits and stares ahead, with a vaguely conscious expression, into a cloudy, grey horizon.
Inside, the house is a cluttered mess of sanguine fluid and the bodies of his family members. There is a pile of scattered belongings on the floor and beside it, a crude pagan-like altar is lit with candles in the living room.
“They say he ate wild mushrooms,” says a police officer, trying his best to make sense of the gory scene.
All this takes place within the first 6 minutes of Gokseong (The Wailing). The film is one of the most convoluted, albeit well-composed and fascinating South Korean features I have seen. A mixture of black humour, slapstick, and supernatural and psychological horror, Gokseong is yet another genre-eschewing Korean film in a similar but superior vein to Park Chan-wook’s romantic vampire horror dramedy, Thirst.
When the film came out in 2016, Gokseong’s director Na Hong-jin, was lauded for creating “an epic Korean horror movie” that was also “one of the most unsettling Korean horror films in years.”
I personally didn’t find the film scary so much as jarring and disturbing. The scenes made me uneasy, not unlike after watching David Lynch’s bad trip-like neo noir Mulholland Drive, or Lucky McKee’s psychological masterpiece May.
Set in the fictional village of Gokseong, a picturesque rural area in South Korea, the film follows the personal tragedy and downfall of Jong-goo, a policeman, as he witnesses the social and psychological breakdown of his entire community.
The villagers of Gokseong live in a world composed of the old and new: Theirs’ is equipped with smartphones, data plans and all the latest technologies. But at night, Gokseong’s inhabitants retreat into their traditional country homes and talk about the latest “boyak” folk concoctions for health and virility.
One by one, people in the village are afflicted by a mysterious illness that is manifested first through strange erratic behaviour, then sores all over the person’s body, followed by fever, and then a murderous rage during which the individual kills his or her entire family (usually by stabbing). The person then sets their home on fire and dies either by suicide or from the final stages of disease.
The specific manner in which the illness develops, as well as the ritualistic way in which the murders are committed lead the small town to develop their own hypotheses about what is happening. The villagers are superstitious enough as it is, and turn to their various faiths and beliefs to ascertain what is happening.
These events also coincide with the arrival of a Japanese hermit, Played by veteran actor Jun Kunimura, who is unwelcome to live amongst the villagers because he is 1) a foreigner 2) a Japanese foreigner, at that. Due to the historical bad blood between Korea and Japan, the stranger’s nationality alone is enough to draw contempt and suspicion.
Soon enough, rumours are swirling amongst villagers. They say he’s a demon in disguise, says one. He’s come to rape local women, say others. One man even claims that he saw the stranger gutting animals in the woods semi-nude.
Jong-goo, played by Kwak Do-won, is a local policeman and the main character whose narrative we follow through the film. A bumbling, run-of-the-mill family man who, in spite of his police badge, is a complete coward.
Jong-goo starts out by trying to keep his head above the gossip, but in his weakest moments he gives in to blindly believing the worst of what he is told.
A ghostly woman in white (played by Chun Woo-hee), the village’s ancestral guardian spirit, approaches Jong-goo several times and tells him that the Japanese man is responsible.
He shakes this off at first and tries to see whether a bad batch of hallucinogenic mushrooms the villagers consumed could be the actual culprit. But when his own daughter Hyo-jin falls sick to the strange illness, Jong-goo readily dismisses scientific explanations for supernatural ones.
On the advice of his mother, Jong-goo hires a mudang (shaman) named Il-gwang, to perform a home exorcism to rid the evil influence of the Japanese stranger from his daughter’s body.
It soon becomes clear that despite the fact that he and his coworkers are law enforcement workers, the real law Jong-goo lives by is that of Gokseong’s village mentality.
In an unsettling part of the film, Jong-goo and his friends form a lynch mob, trekking through the lush mountainside to the stranger’s dilapidated shack. They hunt him down and kill him in the process. Ultimately, this development leads Jong-goo and his family to fatal consequences.
While it was marketed as a horror film, I saw Gokseong as social commentary or a parable about society and our belief systems.
In one flashback, a villager recounts coming across the Japanese stranger, crouched on the floor of the woods eating fresh animal entrails. “You saw him eating raw fresh [right]?” Jong-goo and his friend ask the villager.
In other scenes, Jong-goo and his friends sit in a butcher shop, chewing slabs of raw beef liver while speculating about the stranger. Na makes it clear the villagers are hypocritical in their judgments and views of others.
Of course the stranger is a symbol of intolerance and xenophobia. He literally becomes demonized after his death, when his body reanimates and transforms into a red-eyed, cave-dwelling demon – a manifestation of the village’s hateful perceptions of his former self. “What do you think? Am I the devil?” he whispers mid-transformation.
Gokseong is also highly critical of the village and Korean society’s tendency to engage in a mixed bag of religions, as well as dismissive of the people operating within them.
Why do we give them so much authority over our beliefs, the movie seems to question. All of the religious figures in the film are untrustworthy, and fallible. The young catholic priest in the village succumbs to the rumours he is told and participates in Jong-goo’s murder of the Japanese stranger.
The mudang, who seems more like a gangster than spiritual advisor, played by weasel-y Hwang Jung-min, asks Jong-goo for a huge sum of money in exchange for his services. “The fool has taken the bait,” he says afterwards.
Even the well-meaning village spirit whose purpose is to guard and protect, tells Jong-goo to chase after the wrong suspect.
Theories, hearsay and vivid rumours run amok, bleeding together, until shamanistic ceremonies, flesh-eating demons, reanimated zombies, ancestral guardians and even catholic priests become one with the tangled, confused web of damning events that bring about the destruction of the village.
Jong-goo’s own willingness to veer from science to religion, to village superstition, by securing every type of medical, religious and folk cure for his daughter, shows how much he doubts his own judgement.
“What am I supposed to do?” He wails in one of the last scenes. Devastated and confused, he has to choose between the mudang and the village spirit, though it’s likely both are the wrong answer.
The film is ultimately a rumination on belief systems: why we choose to believe what we do. Jong-goo is the voice of uncertainty, veering between faith and doubt in his belief in science and religion, good and evil, and the familiar and the foreign.
Gokseong asks us to question how we choose to arrive at our beliefs. If someone is accused of doing bad, do they become evil? If tradition dictates something is best, is it the only good choice for us? And if everyone believes, does something only then become true?