WTD: The Wailing

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

Having too much information is the same as having too little.

I must admit that the last few years have seen me grown ever-more jaded with regards to cinema.

Back in the day, I would cheerfully walk miles into the middle of town on the basis of nothing more than a semi-positive review of a foreign-language film. As long as it was interesting, as long as it was different, then I was happy.

I then moved away from London and it suddenly became a lot harder to see foreign films in the cinema. Of course these films can all be purchased on blu-ray or DVD but that requires a commitment of time and space as well as money.  First, you have to sustain your enthusiasm during the time it takes for a film to arrive.  Then you have to find space for it in your house.  Then you have to justify watching it when you already have a groaning ‘to be watched’ shelf, and if it turns out to be shit you’re left with the bloody thing sitting in your home taking up space until you can work out how to dispose of it.

Streaming was supposed to offer a solution to these problems as, in principle, you start watching any film you want and walk away if it struggles to hold your attention but most streaming platforms are utter rubbish.  If I want to watch aggressively upbeat and middle-brow TV series built around mid-tier actors or crypto-fascistic toy adverts developed at great expense by sinister multinational corporations then I guess my boots are filled but if I want to discover something, to be surprised, to be delighted… well, there’s a reason I’ve been reading a lot more in the evenings recently.

Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing is not just a good film, it’s a film so good that it renewed my faith in buying random foreign-language films on DVD. It is a delight from start to finish and fans of horror gaming stand to learn a lot by watching it.

The film is set in a small village in the mountains of South Korea. Aside from the beautifully shot mountainous landscapes that litter the film’s substantial running time, the film’s setting is worth paying attention to as it is neither one thing nor the other: On the one hand, we have a sense of remoteness that comes from the empty landscapes and a sense of temporal dislocation that comes from the characters’ traditional houses. On the other hand, we have the pristine road network that joins up the various locations and the relatively modern police buildings and retail spaces where the protagonist routinely spends his time.

As GMs, we have a tendency to make the same mistake as George Lucas and put all of our world-building eggs in a single thematic basket: If we set something in a mountain village, then it’s all log cabins and ignorant farmers. If we set something in a wealthy town, then it’s all shimmering sky-scrapers and avant-garde night clubs.  The Wailing is a traditional story told with modern characters and the film’s setting reflects that sense of fruitful tension.

The film’s protagonist is a somewhat dumpy middle-aged police officer. Old enough to have a bit of rank but ultimately too lazy and incurious to attain anything approaching a position of authority, our hero is called out to an isolated farm house where a family has been butchered and left for dead. Na continues to riff on the theme of modernity colliding with tradition by showing us the chaos of the investigative process.  On the one hand, you have the police in futuristic raincoats using forensic science to comb the house for clues.  On the other hand, you have the protagonist stumbling across a clump of skull-like mushrooms hinting at something ancient and organic.

The film’s first investigative beat is so well-handled that it caused the hairs to stand up on the back of my neck.  Aware that this murder is something of a ‘big deal’, the film’s protagonist takes an interest in the case. However, because he is both a blundering fool and a police officer who has no idea how to run an investigation, he soon finds himself adrift on a sea of rumour and folk wisdom as every encounter with a local sends him hurtling off towards another dead end. One minute it’s definitely the weird mushrooms. Then it’s definitely some sort of ghost. All of these possibilities swirl around the protagonist. It’s not that he keeps missing his ‘spot hidden’ roll and misses clues, it’s that he can’t tell the difference between a genuine clue and a malicious rumour spread by wagging tongues. RPG investigations tend to equate difficulty with sparsity but The Wailing is a great example of how too much information and too many possibilities can be just as challenging as too little.

As the film progresses, the plot comes to settle on the figure of a Japanese man who has recently moved into the area. When challenged by the police, the man is monosyllabic and disdainful. When the police try to gain entry into his place, they find weird shrines and evidence of occult rituals but by the time they return, everything incriminating has been removed.

Things come to something of a head when the protagonist’s daughter starts behaving in a way that seems completely out of character.  Terrified that the young girl might be ‘infected’ by whatever it was that caused the initial murder, the police officer’s mother in law reaches out to a Shaman who turns up looking like a celebrity psychologist and offers to drive out the evil spirit with what can only be referred to as a sonic onslaught. Aside from offering a welcome change to the over-used cinematic iconography of Catholic exorcism, this ritual and everything that follows on from it raises some really interesting philosophical questions about ritual, faith, mythology, and the extent to which different mystical belief systems might interact and overlap.

The author M. John Harrison once complained about the detrimental effect of what he called the Clomping Foot of Nerdism. What he meant by this is that the desire to create ‘realistic’ worlds and magic systems often runs contrary to the requirements of great literature. World-building, whether it be in the context of fantasy fiction or table-top RPGs tends to reject ambiguity as mystery implies a lack of answers and a lack of answers can sometimes feel like the result of too little effort. Having watched The Wailing a couple of times now, I can understand who the characters are, what they want, and how they relate to each other, but I am still struggling to parse the film’s implied mythology. Is the protagonist battling traditional Korean spirits, Japanese ghosts, or Christian demons? Are these just different ways of referring to the same types of things? Are they all incomplete approximations of a deeper truth? Does real magic even exist in the world of The Wailing or was the entire thing an elaborate grift? These are the kinds of questions that tend to annoy the kinds of players who want to ‘defeat’ mysteries in the same way as they might ‘defeat’ the monsters on the deepest level of the dungeon, but that ambiguity can also make for images and themes that stick in the mind where satisfying answers might not.

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