Last night, I watched the 2016 Korean horror movie The Wailing. It is currently running in theaters in Korea, and the general consensus of the audiences is that they don’t get it. The movie is purposefully confusing, and the director left huge room for multiple interpretations, hoping that the audiences leave the theatre with a lot of questions on what they watched. In this post, I would like to suggest one reading of the movie for people who already watched the movie. If you didn’t watch it, read this post after you watch it. Also, I emphasize that everything I say here is subject to change. I definitely want to watch it one more time, to test my interpretation, and also to make sure that I heard everything that is said in the movie accurately. The subtitles were bad and often inaccurate, and I had a hard time understanding the heavy regional accent spoken in the movie.
Let me start with the director’s understanding of his own movie. He says that he wanted to explore such questions as human suffering and God. Like Job in the Bible, people suffer and get punished. When innocent people suffer, especially, we wonder why they should be inflicted the pain, and when we can’t find an acceptable explanation, we turn to God. God, if there is one, should be able to offer an explanation on the suffering of innocent people. In the movie, the cop’s daughter falls ill, and in the process of trying to understand the cause of her illness and fixing it, the father encounters God. In exploring humans’ relation to God, one essential question concerns faith. When non-believers ask, “how can I believe something I don’t see?” believers respond, “once you believe, you will see.” To support his theological underpinning of the movie, the director borrows a phrase from Luke for an epigraph: Jesus resurrects three days after crucification, and to his disciples who question his resurrection, he announces, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
To me, the movie didn’t feel this theological. Or, to see the movie in theological terms is rather limiting. What I saw instead was everyday people who have to make difficult choices in their lives, and once they make a decision, they go back and keep asking if they made a right choice. The reason why a certain decision is difficult is because the options available are equally good or comparably bad. If one option is clearly superior to the other (a cheap, powerful vacuum cleaner as opposed to an expensive but weak vacuum cleaner), it will be an easy decision. But, when we debate between this job or that job, it is a difficult decision, because this job is good in these regards, but the other job is good in other regards. And when we eventually choose this job and work at it, we often wonder if the other job might have been better. It is when problems arise in this job that we get overwhelmed by self-skepticism and regret that we didn’t choose the other one.
In the movie, the cop’s daughter falls sick, and he sets out to gain an understanding of why she got sick and what should be done. The director seems to think that the three mythical entities (the stranger, Il-gwang, and the woman spirit) represent different things in an hierarchical order (Jesus, mediator, evil, respectively), but in my view, they offer an equally valid explanation and solution of their own, although they are in conflict with each other. For instance, during the shamanistic ritual that Il-gwang performs to exorcise the daughter, the father questions his decision to heal his daughter through Il-gwang. When she writhes in extreme pain at the climax of the exorcising ritual, the father’s self-skepticism makes him overturn his decision. He orders Il-gwang to stop. The audiences are led to believe that the spirit that entered the daughter would be successfully kicked out if the ritual had run its course. Because the exorcism came to an abrupt stop, however, she was not completely set free.
But do we know certainly that she would be healed if the father sustained his trust of Il-gwang throughout? I think this is the point where the believers’ and non-believers’ different attitudes towards faith become relevant. The “I don’t believe what I don’t see” and the “you will see what you believe”are equally valid, although in different ways. What is certain is that these two attitudes will lead to different consequences. Three days after Jesus’s crucification, his disciples must have seen things that suggest Jesus’s resurrection and also things that suggest his death. To choose one interpretation over the other in the face of conflicting evidences depends on each disciple’s faith. Put differently, we believe something, if we want to believe it, and we don’t believe it, if we don’t want to. Different choices entail different consequences. It is really difficult to say one choice is correct or even better than the other. Once we make a decision, therefore, maintaining our faith in it and bearing consequences is the best things we can do. Nonetheless, it is human nature to go back to the past and ask, “what if I had chosen differently?” Nobody can answer this question, but we keep asking.
I think that the movie the Wailing does a good job at describing the delicate human condition in which a faith in our decisions gets consistently eroded by competing theories and evidence. In the last scene, Il-gwang says that the father should go back to his house immediately. Otherwise, his family will all die. The woman spirit insists the opposite. He should wait for the three morning cries of a rooster. Otherwise, his family will all die. And both Il-gwang and the woman insist that he does not listen to the other person. How does he determine his course of action in these two competing demands? He does make a decision, not a carefully calculated one but one made out of desperation ad hoc, and consequences await for his decision. Do these consequences suggest that who was right between Il-gwang and the woman? No. He will probably never figure it out. All he can do is to accept the consequences of his action. Not being able to precisely predict the consequences of our choice but having to go on relentlessly – perhaps this is the horror of life that the movie Wailing wants to portray.