Brief notes on The Priests and The Wailing, Seoul Station and Train to Busan, and why they matter.
The fear factor works very well on me. I get scared by very basic scary stuff in movies. Actually, the sole notion of watching a movie tagged as horror might tense me up. In general, I tend to avoid them, unless calmed by a friend, ideally one that knows me. Yet, this year I managed to overcome the first moment triggers of my fears, and enjoyed some very good films that enchanted me on multiple levels. Among them are some of the most important Korean films. It started at Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival with The Priests (Jang Jae-hyun) that I shamefully missed at Far East Film Fest, The Wailing (Na Hong-jin) and Seoul Station (Yeon Sang-ho), that I actually wanted to see, as well as Train to Busan (again Yeon Sang-ho). All of them use the genre of horror or suspense drama to convey ideas that were not to be talked about in the open, related closely not only to the state of Korean society in general, but to its chief political representatives and their ways of maintaining the image of a peaceful prosperous country.
The Priests is often briefly annotated as a Korean take on The Exorcist. Well, yes and no. While the film is pretty much evolving around an exorcism of a little girl possessed by a demon, and is disturbing, with all the events accompanying the presence of a very old and very powerful Evil/Demon (rats, insects, blood and other stuff nightmares are made of), it works in its own ways. Mainly, as most working genre films, it reaches into own culture, own socio-political situation and turns it into an obvious twist, as well as a very solid story within the story. The obvious is the take on the exorcism itself, mixing Christianity and traditional approaches (yes, the nowadays Korean buzzword #1, shamanism), with a modern twist. The protective ability of salt ring, bells – that control the spirits and have power to send them to where they belong –, and running water mixes with the Cross, Virgin Mary and Johann Sebastian Bach, especially at the moment, when the shamanism is shown as running out of its breath. What is more important, is a stubborn belief of one man that there is a spiritual Evil present that must be banished, and one good hearted child – the possessed girl – being strong enough to do her best to captivate the said Evil within the limits of her body. Here The Priests opens to the second level, which has to do with what has been going on in South Korea. There we can follow the story of a girl possessed by a Demon, with only a few men realizing it with all the consequences. Yet, as time drags on and the girl doesn’t seem to get cured, the Church – the Authority one turns to when it comes to protection against very bad thing happening in modern days –, so supportive at the beginning, withdraws from Father Kim’s mission and denies any ties to him, leaving him in the fight with only one novice Deacon Choi. Facing his own demons – not being able to help his little sister and protect her from being mauled by a big dog, Deacon Choi has to overcome himself and his urges to protect himself; to realize, that what happened to his sister is now a mere sob story of his and he can either succumb to it and let the Demon take control of his life, of everyone’s life, or he can face the fear, stand up to it and fight the Evil. In the end, The Priests is a disturbing, dark story about identifying the hidden Evil and finding the will to fight it and doing one’s best to defeat it. And it ain’t any authority, church or government that do it for “the people”, it is someone – anyone with wits and guts and perseverance.
The absence of the Authority or even some order that might give an assisting hand to the citizens of a secluded mountain village marks, to my opinion, the most complex and punching Korean film of 2016, The Wailing. On the first glance another Korean detective drama with non-stop rain, ever-present mud and murders committed with gruesome rage own to no man. The deaths might have to do with a sickness of unknown origin, the bodies found in kind of a nest with everything around burnt and talismans scattered around, the suspects are found covered in blood, and everything is obviously connected to some strange dark magic ritual. All the explanations – namely those based on reason and logic – seem to be equally valid as inadequate. In the state, when nothing makes sense and no decision appears to lead to an instant positive solution and even those who want to stay calm and rational, lose their solid ground, rumours and prejudice fuelled by a strange Shaman lady take the wheel. Now, after the impeachment of the president Park Geun-hye based mainly on her connection to the Eternal Life Church and personal adviser and shaman Choi Soon-sil, it is more than clear, who the movie Shaman lady represents. It is no surprise that it is a Japanese man living in the woods nearby to take the blame. For one, he is the stranger to the village, outsider, second, he lives a silent secluded life, and last but not least, he is Japanese. Once the villain is appointed, no one cares to look at the events from a different angle, to reconsider the nature of the proofs; they all follow the words of the shaman(s) and see only what they expect to see, what they are told to see. No one cares about the other explanations offered even on TV. Yet with the time, what seemed to be cleared as a solid fact gets falsified, and the before-rumours gain in their strength. In no way we should overlook one more victim to the hysteria, the daughter of the investigator Jong-goo. She gets inexplicably ill, hallucinating, having pains. Yet she refuses to be part of her parents’ wrong-doings, revolts against the shaman conducted exorcism, while they in their blinded mind are convinced their act is for the child’s good, while she (like the girl from The Priests) has her own gasp on the events quite probably knows her way out but no one cares to ask or to listen. The consequences are to come. What The Wailing does, is that it puts the spectator into the role of a character, showing, misleading, leaking some information in the background, forcing him to chose what is to be trusted, and what not. And it doesn’t provide a direct lead that would, like the Ariadne’s thread lead anyone out of the maze. Everyone has to find own way. Perhaps this is also why quite a lot of people (to my opinion) shuts the door before The Wailing even really starts – they only see what I mentioned in the beginning: another rainy, muddy Korean crime film with a lot messy situation and somewhat desperate cops.
NOTE: I saw The Wailing at Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, thus in time the Shaman Gate was already out in the public light, yet failed to realize the screeming connection. We talked the film later, at Five Flavours Film Festival, where Bastian pointed it out. Thank you.