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Ambiguity in The Wailing (2016)

Ambiguity in The Wailing (2016)

Enough with Spoon-Fed Plots and Predictable Themes

The Wailing is a 2016 South Korean horror-drama-thriller produced by Side Mirror and Fox International Productions. It’s the first horror film by writer/director Na Hong-jin, who up until this point ventured primarily into the action-thriller territory, but here shows a mature and skilled understanding of everything that makes a film truly outstanding. First shown at the Out of Competition section at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was a huge box office success and received unanimous critical acclaim for its challenging, layered themes and messages – which, in all fairness, can result a little cryptic in their complexity.

Although a comprehensive study would probably require the writing of an entire manual, and since there is no official explanation to date, here’s an analysis of the themes of The Wailing, strictly connected to the concept of ambiguity.

The Philosophical, Inherent Ambiguity Of Life

The plot of The Wailing sees the Korean village of Gokseong shocked by a series of murders where people come down with an unknown illness and inexplicably kill their loved ones. Police Sergeant Jong-goo’s (Kwan Do-won) investigation leads to a mysterious Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura), the protagonist of multiple disturbing encounters recounted by the villagers. When Jong-goo’s young daughter Hyo-jin catches the disease as well, the policeman will have to untangle the puzzle with the help of a Shaman (Hwang Jung-min)… while an erratic Woman in White (Chun Woo-hee) seems to know a lot about the strange events.

In this regard, ambiguity is more than just leaving the movie without a finale. It’s the intentional proposal by director Na Hong-jin of mimicking what is essentially life’s dynamic. Our very existence is ambiguous in itself – we don’t know, and will probably never know, who we are, what’s the meaning of our being, and what really lives beneath the surface of our world. The final resolution of the film does answer some questions, but leaves the very core of this philosophy untainted. This is not inexperienced filmmaking, but rather the very intention of the director that becomes much clearer when considering the spark originating the concept of this movie. Hong-jin said in an interview that he found himself in a situation where a lot of people close to him tragically passed away in a short window of time. While pondering the reason behind all this, he realized that for some things we will just never have the necessary information to fully understand the “cause-and-effect” chain that is the universe. Most of the time, all we’re given are the effects. And not just us – no religion or faith has all the answers either. Speaking of which…

The Characters’ Struggle With Faith

Faith is probably The Wailing’s most important theme, and it’s strictly connected to the concept of philosophical ambiguity. Like life itself, faith does not provide answers to the mysteries of the universe. The very expression “leap of faith” refers to the uncertainty of every system of belief and how humans have no power over anything. The bleak perspective of this film might trick the audience into thinking that whatever one puts their faith in, it’s wrong. However, it’s more nuanced than that. Specifically, it’s about how hard it is for someone to put their faith in something they do not understand (and, again, will never understand), especially in a life-or-death situation.

Ambiguity in The Wailing (2016)

This correlation of faith and ambiguity is particularly evident in the characters. As pragmatic as he is, Jong-goo happens to make the wrong choice more than once, and that is because he is unable to put his faith into something that challenges his entire viewpoint on reality. When confronted by the Woman in White, Jong-goo’s faith in her depends solely on whether she’s a woman or a ghost – he demands to know something that simply isn’t given to know, when the only thing he should have relied on is faith. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s Yang I-sam (Kim Do-yoon), a deacon who helps Jong-goo in his investigation. Being a churchman, he has the strongest sense of faith out of all the characters, so much that he believes it will protect him when confronting who he thinks is the Devil. That is unfortunately not the case. I-sam serves as an antithesis of Jong-goo, as he perhaps has even too much faith, but having faith does not automatically mean one will be rewarded. The result is both characters losing their respective battles.

Generational Crisis And Xenophobia Fuel Uncertainty

Ambiguity permeates the narrative and philosophical structure of The Wailing. However, there’s one more context where such ambiguity is applied, and that is the social subtext of the movie. To fully understand that, one needs to consider the modern history of Korea. After the Korean War ended in 1953, Korea was amongst the poorest places in the world, but soon after, it faced a period of staggering economic growth that quickly transformed it into one of the richest countries. Such a change had a profound impact on its society and culture, as the older generation experienced a period of social, economic, and political turmoil, while the newer one has its strongholds in economic prosperity and individualistic happiness – all this in a matter of a few decades.

This generational confrontation is also subtlety expressed in the film’s narrative. Taking Jong-goo as an example, who’s roughly aged between 35 and 40, he belongs to an “in-between” generation that doesn’t really fit into either one. This group of Koreans struggles in honoring the sacrifices of their fathers, while simultaneously having to embrace the ever-changing future of their sons and daughters. This uncertainty perfectly reflects the main theme of The Wailing, as it’s just another context that reeks of ambiguity – an identity crisis is added to a spiritual and philosophical one. However, there’s one more social element that might go unnoticed. Jong-goo’s (and the entire village’s) behavior against the Japanese man is the embodiment of xenophobia. He’s the ominous stranger from abroad, who God knows what is capable of doing. There’s a whole racial subtext that is more connected to ambiguity than one might think – xenophobia is fear of the other; fear of the other is fear of the unknown; and what’s more ambiguous than the unknown?

The Wailing is a film that is very hard to understand on a first watch, as it would require multiple viewings to fully understand all the layered messages. The lack of a clear resolution stimulates more plausible interpretations than one can count, and that is solely thanks to its masterful use of ambiguity – in its narrative structure as well as its subtextual meaning. This film ultimately serves as a reflection on life, knowledge, and faith, along with how these concepts are ineffable yet crucial components of our very existence.

Make sure to check out The Wailing on multiple streaming platforms, including Prime Video and Peacock, but prepare yourself to spend multiple sleepless nights trying to grasp the complex yet hauntingly beautiful meaning of the film – or at least, one of the many.

Ambiguity in The Wailing (2016)

The Wailing (2016) Official Rotten Tomatoes Indie Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Federico was born on July 20, 1998, in Trieste, Italy. Film enthusiast for as long as he can remember, he graduated in Philosophy at the University of Turin. His lifelong dream is to become a storyteller, and he’s currently planning his next step to (hopefully!) make this dream come true.