Interview: 'The Wailing' Director Na Hong-jin On Death, Genre, Religion & Comedy

Let’s face it; domestic box-office in the States hasn’t exactly been sizzling at the onset of the summer season. With critically panned studio mega-million productions making most of their big bucks overseas, American moviegoers are clearly not very interested in what the big screens have to offer these days. And with “Warcraft” (pretty but shallow) and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (‘pitiful and unpleasant’) failing, while “X-Men: Apocalypse” (so bad) and “Batman v. Superman” (somehow, way worse) redefined comic book movie disappointment, who can really blame them? Those lucky enough to be living in or near a city that’s still showing “The Wailing,” though, would do well to make the trip and watch what real, gratifying, heart-racing, and wholly unpredictable movie entertainment is all about.

This multi-genre bending horror film from Korea, directed by Na Hong-jin (who’s got “The Yellow Sea” and “Chaser” under his belt – both incredible), tells the story of detective Jong-hu (Kwak Do-won) who must root out the cause of the demonic possession that’s taken hold of his young daughter in a small Korean village. We were giddy about it when we caught it in Cannes in May (read our review here), and taken aback by how impressively the young director managed to balance so many genres, themes and motifs.

We caught up with Na recently for an e-mail interview, in which he discussed his inspirations for the film, the heavy leanings on religion, his relationship with the actors and some of the crew, among other things. Check it out below, and don’t let all the big franchise disappointments get you down; go see “The Wailing” in a cinema near you while it’s still out there.

the-wailingYou say that you encountered “something fierce” in the story of “The Wailing” that compelled you to make it after “The Yellow Sea.” Can you talk a little about that and the overall origins of the project?

During the break after I finished “The Yellow Sea,” several deaths of my close acquaintances followed one another. Attending a funeral had become rather a common ordeal for me, but it felt much worse back then. The deceased were my close friends, and in no way felt like a ‘common’ experience. Unfortunately, their deaths were not of natural causes, leaving those who are left behind all the more sorrowful. Funerals usually last three days in Korea, and all throughout those days I pondered about their deaths. The questions raised during those days coincided with the things I have always been wondering while making my previous films. The question was, “Why did THEY have to be victims OF ALL PEOPLE”? I already had the answers for the ‘How’. What I had to find out was the ‘Why’. So I began to meet and talk to the clergy of various religions, which was the starting point of this film.

Korean cinema has such a rich history of re-inventing genres, and there’s a lot here: detective mysteries, all sorts of horror films, religious etc. How did you find such a fantastic balance between them all?

I mull over and repeat things in my mind countless times, to be accumulated and embodied within myself. This process is necessary to bring all those impressive images I imagined while designing the film in unison, despite the different edges of each image. Once that’s taken care of, I reconstruct the edge and uniqueness of each separate image on the course of making the film later on.

“The Wailing” — even more than “Yellow Sea” and “The Chaser” — relies a lot on comedy and laughs, especially in the first part. Then in the second half, certain things that were funny before become very uncomfortable and serious. Can you talk about the function of humor in the film?

As I was writing the script, I sensed that the story was heading towards a horrendous direction. This film is facing certain state which everyone feels but tries to look away. I wondered if it was the unwritten law but decided otherwise, and began to add more ‘bearable’ elements. Humorous touches are one of them.

the-wailing-2Tell me about your working relationship with actor Kwak Do Won who you worked with previously? He is excellent here, his balance of being very funny and very dramatic really keeping you on edge.

Kwak has an exceptional understanding of the dynamics between directing and acting. I was really fortunate to have spent three days watching him act during the shootings of “The Yellow Sea.” One day, as the sun began to rise after an all-nighter, I stopped him on his way back home and drank with him until nightfall. He turned out to be a very open and straightforward person who didn’t mind talking about his life—including the discord between his parents and their deaths—to a near stranger like me. He had a very clear idea about why he acts, how he learned to act, and for which purpose he acts. The conversations we had helped me a lot to understand him. The stories from his life after 20 years of being an unknown actor and his acting captivated me. After that, no other actor has entered my mind.

Kunimura Jun has such a fantastic face, you somehow feel for him even if you’re not sure whether he’s evil or good. Was he always in your mind for the part of The Stranger?

I didn’t have any particular actor in mind while writing the script, so I went through a lot of Japanese actors during the casting process. As you mentioned, Kunimura’s ability to put up any kind of face as he wishes as though he is playing a face changing show made him the most ideal cast for the role. He added an incredible amount of vitality to a character that would have otherwise simply adhered to an absent expression for the sake of ambiguity.

Spirituality and religion, these themes play a big part in “The Wailing” – Can you discuss what pulled you towards this? Are you a religious person yourself?

I chose religion because I believed that no areas of study or school of philosophy could answer my question mentioned earlier. I’m a Christian, and if I didn’t believe in the God from the Bible to begin with, I would have told this story in an entirely different way. Perhaps I could have answered the question with scientific reasoning. But I’m not very devout practitioner like the rest of my family, participating in missionary works and such. I sometimes find myself agreeing to the concepts and comments that deny the existence of God. When making important decisions, I seek counseling from the Buddhist monks at temples in the mountains and pray there as well.

the-wailingThat scene with the shaman casting the hex is instantly iconic, especially with the way it uses very loud drums and energetic editing between the shaman and the Stranger. What kind of affect did you want the audience to have with the music and the editing in this particular sequence?

In attempt to find primitive religions that still exist, I traveled to many Asian countries (including Korea) to collect information. Every time I witnessed a ritual—whatever the purpose it may be—I experienced heart bursting excitement followed by serious dizziness. My reactions would be all but naturally expected from a person watching the offerings burn in licking flames, but I wanted to convey those feelings to the audience by believing and wholly staging that exact value, which has been passed down for thousands of years. The music used in the sequence is played by actual shamans, and all the actions played are the same as in the ritual of exorcism performed in real life. I secretly wondered if any audience would have a seizure or something, but that didn’t happen.

Ironically, this sequence deals with a situation outside of the biblical context that caused the decline of existing genre of occult. It motivated me to shape “The Wailing” into an occult film, and the sequence symbolizes the flexibility and differentiated originated from my identity both as Asian and Christian.

Without giving too much away, there is a sense that you like to play with audience expectations in all your films, especially with your endings. This is also true in “The Wailing” where you send us through a few loops before the finale. What attracts you to this kind of storytelling?

When the fans of genre films come to the theaters and are waiting for the film to start, I assume that they are in rather aggressive and critical state of mind. These audiences each show different levels of reactions and understandings, ‘unmaking’ the film largely into three ways. The first group makes random guesses, the second absorbs the plot, and the third just can’t catch up. The film is distorted through this process, all the more affected by the fact that these audiences are all in a same theater. It also has a huge influence over the evaluations of the audience once the film is over. I wanted to satisfy all three kinds of audiences with “The Wailing.” Sometimes I had to give up 30 to gain 70, or give up 70 to secure 30, at times gaining a whole 100. After such process, multiple wrap-ups of the story that can be interpreted in completely variable ways would all be realized in one film. I know that it was a long shot, and it still may turn out to be a failed attempt, but I am happy with the fact that I got to try.

the-wailingTalk about the visual look of “The Wailing” because that’s a huge part of its appeal in my opinion – the film is gorgeous and full of vibrant locations like the forest where the Stranger lives. Can you discuss how you worked with cinematographer Hong Kyung Pyo?

Hong has the purity of a child. He is intuitive, and hardly looks away from the viewfinder. I disregarded my storyboard after seeing him search through the woods and enter deep into forbidden places as though he was possessed. We walked into the raining woods, spontaneously coming up with cuts for the film, just like we were jamming to a Jazz music. This one time, Hong was debating whether or not to have a giant branch of a ginkgo tree cut down that was blocking the view of the town. I told him, “You might go to hell if you cut that branch.” The tree was considered the guardian tree by the townsfolk’s. Hong was baffled by my comment for a bit, but soon retorted. “I’ll shoot this and go to hell.” So there he got himself the ticket to hell, for that one cut. Let me tell you a secret. We suffered from nightmares from being forced to make choices like that tree incident, so we personally went through a ritual from a shaman as well.

This interview is mainly going to be read by American readers, some of whom may not be so familiar with your work. Is there any kind of message you’d like to give them as a way to prepare for the unique ride they’ll get in “The Wailing”?

I have no idea what kind of person you are to watch my film. Nevertheless, I tried to make a film for you. Whatever ideas come to you while you watch the film, they’re yours. I want this film to be your own. On the other hand, there is one thing I wish everyone who watches this film to feel, regardless of who they are: a condolence for those who disappeared after having fallen as victims of the world, and for those who are left behind. I sincerely wish this film gives you some time for condolences.

The Wailing is currently playing in select cities.