Ambiguity in Writing: A Case Study of The Wailing

the wailing horror movie writingHello, spooky ones!

I recently watched The Wailing, a South Korean horror movie on Netflix directed by Na Hong-jin. It is a gripping movie that warrants a second watch after you’ve completed it. Described as a cross between Se7en and The Exorcist, the story revolves around a bumbling police officer, Jong-goo, who investigates people getting sick from supposedly digesting a supposed mushroom that makes them murder their loved ones while they progressively grow more aggressive and have sores and rashes covering their body. Meanwhile, the residents of Goksung (which means “the wailing”) suspect the illness or curse is caused by a Japanese stranger who arrived in town and allegedly raped a woman who then became sick and began showing up naked in public locations. The situation worsens when the officer’s daughter, Hyo-jin, begins to exhibit a strange personality shift, and the rash appears on her thigh.

Just to be clear, I highly recommend you watch the movie first because I am going to talk about the ending in great detail. Trust me, the runtime looks like a lot, but just when I thought the movie was ending, and there were about thirty minutes left, I was excited. I wanted the film to keep going. Also, I will discuss insinuations about sexual abuse and historical instances of widespread rape through coerced sex work. So, be careful.

At the center of this film is distrust toward the Japanese man (also sometimes referred to as the forest shaman) because he is Japanese. This fear has a historical context. Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945, the end of World War II. Many South Korean films, such as The Silenced, address the Japanese occupation, depicting the Japanese as cruel oppressors who prey on their subjects, especially women. Their rule was harsh, and many women from occupied areas were abducted or promised work at factories, only to be forced into sex work, or to be “comfort women” for the military. This is why the Japanese man being connected to raping a Korean woman is important; it acts upon a very real occurrence that makes Japanese men appear as a threat to Korean women, even when the occupation is over.

It’s just like just because England no longer occupies India or Sri Lanka doesn’t mean the trauma and effects are still not felt and influence public perception. It is even darker that there are insinuations, with the rash first appearing on Hyo-jin’s thigh and a sex worker in a bar having the rash on her neck, that the one responsible for spreading the disease/curse/possession sexually abuses his female victims. The Japanese man is then perceived as a sexual predator, right down to a book of sexually explicit illustrations Jong-goo finds when he sneaks into the Japanese man’s house.

With this narrative in place, with Jong-goo’s violence escalating against the Japanese mean, it seems as if the Japanese man is a red herring and that the film’s twist will reverse the xenophobic course of the film and give the lesson that assuming a person is bad because of their ethnicity leads to consequences. The narrative even sows the seeds that a woman in white, who starts off throwing rocks near the protagonist, is the possible culprit to the possessions. At the end, there are two scenes at once at the climax: Jong-goo is with the Woman in White, and a deacon who has been a recurring character in the story (and serves as a translator of the Japanese man’s words) is with the Japanese man, who is hiding in a candlelit cave after Jong-goo and his companions supposedly killed him in an act of vigilantism.

The Woman in White is in darkness, and the Japanese man is in light. The cinematic language is clear, supposedly. Someone in darkness is sinister and cannot be trusted because they are hiding, and someone in light signifies they’re good and trustworthy, since they can be fully seen. The Woman in White manipulated Jong-goo and gained his trust, and by the way she disappears at one point early in the film, she certainly is hinted to be supernatural. Jong-goo, confused and told to not trust the Woman in White while speaking to the shaman he hired to exorcise his daughter, eventually decides that he cannot trust the Woman in White when she tells him not to go home to his family before the rooster crows three times, or they will die.

Meanwhile, the deacon and the Japanese man discuss if the Japanese man is the Devil. The Japanese man says the Devil does not have flesh and blood like a human, like he does, but he might as well be, since the deacon has already decided for himself that he’s the Devil, even when the deacon protests that this isn’t the case.

In the cave scene, the Japanese man essentially quotes Jesus in the garden, post-resurrection; this is the same quotation that appears at the beginning of the film:

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.

—Luke 24:37-39

During the time, with these two conversations, I was deeply invested, but also largely ambivalent on who is actually the villain responsible for the possessions/curse.

But then, the film at its end, has Jong-goo leave the Woman in White and go home before the rooster’s third crow. He goes to discover his wife and mother-in-law dead, Hyo-jin still possessed. The Japanese man turns into the Devil, laughing and taking a picture of the deacon. (Throughout the film, it’s established that the Japanese man has pictures of the victims, either to curse them or try to save them. For cultural context, there is the belief that a photograph steals a person’s soul.) As the family is destroyed and Jong-goo is seemingly killed by Hyo-jin, the Woman in White looks dejected at her failure to convince Jong-goo to listen to her.

There are many interpretations of the ending with discussions on what the meaning of certain symbols and certain characters’ fixation on photography. Some even argue the sickness and hysteria are all really the result of digesting the mushrooms, the first explanation given to why people are acting as they are. The most common interpretation was the one that takes the story at face value, and this was my interpretation when the film ended: the Woman in White was good all along. The film in its last act convinces you that the Japanese man was a red herring, a lesson on exacting violence on someone because of an entire group’s heated distrust; it convinces you the Woman in White led Jong-goo, distraught and furious over his daughter’s deteriorating condition, manipulates him into suspecting the Japanese man as responsible and catapults what is essentially a witch hunt. But then, the film reverses the narrative expectations.

However, as I linked above, there are also interpretations that, no, the Japanese man is still good and that the Woman in White is bad, sad at the end of the film only because she wanted to possess the shaman who was allegedly helping Jong-goo, but this fails when Jong-goo doesn’t listen to her and rushes home. There is also the interpretation that the Japanese man turns into the Devil at the end to emphasize the motif of sight and belief, and how he essentially becomes the Devil not literally, but because he is perceived as evil by the deacon and everyone in Goksung. Others believe both the Japanese man and the Woman in White are malevolent, in a bidding war for the townspeople’s souls. It is fitting that the film’s dialogue has an emphasis on sight, on witnessing, as evidenced by the Jesus quotation. There is a nod that, as the narrative progresses, the entire story shifts based on what the audience sees and believes.

What does this have to do with writing?

While some of my observations are cinematic, this visual language does not need to be exclusive to this medium. The point is that uncertainty creates unease and tension, which is vital in horror writing, as well as adjacent genres, such as mystery. The Wailing itself starts off as a Se7en-esque murder-mystery of bizarre murders before taking a more supernatural leaning. Consider the unreliable narrator, a narrator whose perceptions you can’t trust. There are many reasons you can learn to doubt the main character, and why this is effective. Biases. Limited perception when they enter the middle of a situation with little to no context. This is real. We all go into stories with our own preferences, and this creates tension when we desperately want the truth, but it seems tenuous at best, and even after the story ends, we keep deciphering the story and examining it under multiple lenses. Stories like The Wailing stay with you because of the ambiguity.

An important part of sowing tension and unease is establishing certain expectations early on, perhaps invoking certain tropes, only to subvert or deconstruct them later on. Think about ways to mislead the audience, but be sure there is a throughline, or hints and foreshadowing throughout the story, so the twist doesn’t come out of nowhere just to try to outwit your audience. The Wailing does this through symbolic actions, such as taking photos or throwing rocks (he who is without sin casts the first stone, etc.), or the use of colors or dialogue with veiled meaning (subtext). Consider how your characters’ routines and habits reveal something about what they want and what their intentions are.

Have you seen The Wailing? What are some ways you try to add ambiguity in your stories?

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