With regrettably catchy music, good food, a booming economy and an increasingly silly-sounding threat of fiery annihilation from its northern border, South Korea seems to be where it's at. Joy to the pretentious assholes like me for whom the fetishization of Japan has become too mainstream: We have a new Asian culture to swoon over. Ready your ox bone soup and your obscure soda. Certainly, if it weren't for the insane language barrier and the persistent pull of the black beaches of Iceland, I might find myself moving to Seoul and living out my life as a K-Pop hip-thrust inspector.
Following this trend, Korean cinema continues to make strides in the West. Korean horror in particular has been gaining traction with those who are bored of the jump-scare trappings of mainstream Hollywood, and reached something of a peak in 2010 with Kim Jee-woon's unrelenting I Saw the Devil. A challenger has come along this year, however, in the form of Na Hong-Jin's The Wailing, which looks to projectile vomit its mark on to horror history. Spoilers abound below this dancing shaman.
The Wailing tells the story of a small, modern-day village that appears to have become something of a hunting ground for supernatural forces. It's familiar territory, but Hong-Jin elevates it above your typical paranormal bloodbath by giving his spooks a welcome kind of cryptic character. Contrasting themes of religion and science with those of tradition and ritual, The Wailing blurs motives, morals and that pesky line between good and evil.
This ritualistic fervor comes to a crux towards the middle of the film, when the central character agrees to hire a shaman to do battle with the demon possessing his daughter (as you do). It sounds like an exorcism, but the shaman himself gives it the more appropriate title of a "death hex," and that means more than replacing the ol' crucifix-Bible combo with your funky idol of choice.
With a manic smile and more than a few sacrificial chicken corpses to his name, the shaman dances his way around meticulously arranged candles and severed animal chunks, baiting out his invisible combatant with swords and bells. He follows this up by slitting the throat of that most metal of animals — the goat — but not before chopping down a voodoo-esque totem pole in order to hammer nails into its wooden heart.
There is another power, however, that seeks to punish the girl and her family. This elderly conjurer lurks in the forest, drawing on native superstitions for his rituals. Photographing a recently deceased corpse steals that person's soul, you see, and this anti-shaman has an expansive, albeit one-note portfolio. Drawing power from one such photo, he mutters incantations into a fire and beats a drum, fighting back at the shaman's hex. Of course, he must periodically stop to slice the throats of a few black chickens — nature's second most metal animal.
You can see some footage of this scene towards the end of the trailer:
The energy, the volume, the sweat — Hong-jin manages to create a supernatural "battle" scene that is far more exhilarating than the choreography-jerkoffs of all those Marvel films that I inexplicably continue to pay to see, and there's not a single special effect in sight. Gone are the cheap tricks of gimmicky spooks from Sinister-Para-Purge-Insidious-Activity: The Sequel Dimension. Hell, The Wailing is a few hilarious expletives short of pipping out The Exorcist for my favorite display of supernatural power.
This is the occult that we need more of in our horror. It's dirty, it's morally gray, and if you want to place a curse on someone's family, you had better be prepared to hide a dead crow in their soy sauce. Taking us back to that kind of visceral force found in a bonfire, rough sex or drugs, it is equal parts ecstatic and terrifying. This, ultimately, is because it is closer to us.
In the truly horrifying occult, the point isn't some arbitrary divide between spirits and humans or Christianity and edgy, upside-down Christianity — it's not even really a matter of good vs. evil (chickens certainly seem to get a bad rap from both sides). No, despite references toward bird demons, fox spirits and ancestral magic, the kind of occult that The Wailing seeks to revitalize is about those people with too much resolve and too little humanity.
After all, anyone can fashion a few trinkets, read a few books, and invoke the power of the goat in the fire, but why would they want to? Say that the goat doesn't answer – is it not still terrifying that you could be so driven to even attempt to incur such forces?
And if it does...
Would you rather have your liver devoured by angry tengu than give Blumhouse Productions the money to finance a seventh Paranormal Activity movie?
Korean films not only dominate the occult, but they also have a firm grasp on action as well. Check out the video below to see what we mean: