Hong-jin Na

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

7.0 The Chaser (2008)
7.0 The Yellow Sea (2010)
7.3 The Wailing (2016)

Hong-jin Na (South Korea, 1974) debuted, after several shorts, with the thriller Chugyeokja/ The Chaser (2008), inspired by a real-life serial killer.

Hwanghae/ The Yellow Sea (2010) is a noir thriller that escalates into an apocalyptic (and highly implausible) carnage via a colorful gallery of crime bosses. At the center is an ordinary man caught in a web of deceit and revenge. At the end everybody dies except the two people who set in motion the whole story.

Gu-nam, a taciturn taxi driver, is broke. He tries in vain to make money playing majong all night long. He lives in a border region where China is close to Korea. He owes a huge sum to the people who helped his wife get a visa to South Korea. Unfortunately, his wife, who left him with their little daughter, has stopped communicating and stopped sending money, a sign that most likely she found someone else. One day he is approached by a mobster who offers to pay off his debt if he will kill someone in South Korea. Gun-nam accepts. The mobster, Myun, tells him to memorize an address, asks him to bring back a finger of the victim, and threatens to kill his entire family if he screws up. Gu-nam boards a boat with dozens of illegal immigrants. When they are near the coast, the crew wakes up the passengers packed in the boat and unceremoniously throws them in launches that reach the South Korean city. He is welcome by gangsters who hand him his return ticket. He gets to the city and tracks down the "professor" he has to kill, but he also finds the time to search for his wife, which is perhaps the real reason for his journey. The restaurant where she used to work warns him that the waitresses are who worked there are basically prostitutes and his wife was probably just that. Gun-nam studies the habits of the professor he has to kill and one night even meets him in person: the professor is kind and generous, and even hands him some money beliving him a homeless person. Gun-nam prepares an accurate plan while he's still searching for his wife in markets and brothels. He finally finds someone who rememebrs her and learns that a man with a white truck found her a better job at a high-class shushi place. Gu-nam finds him and beats him up until he tells him where the shushi place is. Her apartment is a mess and the neighbor tells him that she had a big fight with a man. He turns off the light, grabs a knife, hides in a corner and patiently waits for her to return; but she doesn't.
The last night before his boat trip back home he has to act. He waits for the professor to arrive as he usually does on the car driven by his chaffeur, but then Gu-nam is surprised to see two men enter the same building, wait for the professor and then kill him. The chaffeur, instead of calling for help, hurries to finish his boss off. Gu-nam makes the mistake of coming too close, and the chaffeur, having seen him and wanting to get rid of a witness, attacks him. Gun-nam, defneding himself, kills the chaffeur. Now there is blood all over the stairs. Gun-nam nonetheless cuts the finger that he has to bring back to Myun. Meantime, the police arrive and he has to flee acrobatically. His getaway culminates in a quasi-comic police chase scene.
The news of the murder is widely broadcast on tv. Gu-nam is now looking for his wife, but the people who hired the chaffeur to kill the professor are now looking for Gu-nam, a dangerous witness. The instigator of the murder is a rich man, Tae-won, who looks like an elegant businessman, and he wants Gu-nam dead. Both the police and his gangsters are hunting Gu-nam. The police find him on a bus, and Gu-nam manages to escape only because the cops are so inept that they kill one of theirs; but the gangsters are immediately there too. Wounded, Gu-nam crosses a forest and climbs a mountain, heading towards the port. The gangsters are beating up every person somehow related to immigration from China, trying to find out how Gu-nam is planning to leave the country; but, no matter how many people they torture, nobody knows him. They conclude that he must have come through a Chinese broker and finally find out about Myun. Their boss Tae-won does not hesitate to order them to murder Myun in China. But Myun is smarter: not only he survives, but kills all the gangsters except one to make him talk. Myun travels to Korea with a little army of gangsters and calls Tae-won, who has just been interrogated by the police since he was a close associate of the murdered professor. Myun and Tae-won meet while Gu-nam has accidentally found the contact to get back to Korea, kidnapped him, tortured him and forced him to find him a passage. Tae-won accepts to pay Myun money in order to have Gu-nam killed. Myun guesses the location of Gu-nam's hideout and heads there with his army of gangsters.
Gu-nam is preparing to leave when he hears on tv of a gruesome murder: the body parts of a female immigrant have been found inside a bag and the suspect is the man of the white truck who has confessed that she wanted to leave him and return to China. Gu-nam realizes that there's a good chance that his wife is the victim. Gu-nam leaves his hideout just minutes before Myun arrives. However, the men who are supposed to smuggle him into Korea try to scam him and then try to kill him. Running away from them, Gu-nam ends in front of the gate where Myun and his men are assembling. A bleeding Gu-nam survives a frantic chase in the port and runs away in a car, chased by both Myun and the police. After countless crashes and explosions, Gu-nam drives away alone.
Now Tae-won wants to kill Myun, but Myun survives an epic knife battle in which all of his men die. Meanwhile, Gu-nam, still trapped in Korea, has adoped a new mission: he has decided to find out who started this whole mess and approaches the professor's widow to help him. A bleeding Myun, armed with an axe, tracks down Tae-won and single-handedly annihilates his gang, while a bleeding Gu-nam is also on the hunt for the same Tae-won. At the end of a bloody duel Myun butchers Tae-won but dies himself a few seconds later. When Gu-nam arrives, he hears Tae-won's last words: he ordered the professor's murder because the professor slept with his woman. All this carnage because of jealousy.
Gu-nam is ready to return hom with the ashes of his wife (he paid to have her cremated), but first there is still the mystery of who originally asked Myun to kill the professor, independently of Tae-won. Gu-nam finds out that is was a bank manager, but, when he sees him with the professor's wife, he simply walks away, perhaps tired of blood. The professor was cheating on his wife with Tae-won's woman, and the professor's wife and the bank manager wanted to start a life together. Gu-nam doesn't care. He hijacks a boat to return to China but dies during the trip.

Gokseong/ The Wailing (2016) is a psychological thriller that plays with the mind of the viewer. It is also a Christian parable about faith: the protagonist betrays the ghost like Peter betrayed Jesus. In the cosmic battle between good and evil, good has a problem: humans are too weak to have faith.

In a mountain village the cop Jong-goo is woken up at dawn because Cho, the ginseng merchant, and his wife have been murdered. He has a quick breakfast with his wife, his mother-in-law and his little daughter and then under a torrential rain he meets his police partners on the murder scene. The assassin is standing there, bloodied, lifeless, not moving, like a zombie. His body is covered with a rash. A room has been set up with candles for some kind of esoteric ritual. Then one day a young man of the village, Byeong-gyu, witnesses a mysterious Japanese man eating an uncookedA dead deer in the forest. The rumor spreads around town that the Japanese man somehow has cast a spell on the town that has caused mysterious events including some deaths and now this brutal murder. Jong-goo doesn't believe the gossip and believes the official report about the assassin: he had eaten mushrooms that were probably psychedelics and made him go crazy. During a power outage at the police station, Jong-goo and his police partner see a naked woman outside who disappears right away. They are frightened. Jong-goo is not a courageous cop at all. He wakes up the following morning with nightmares. He has sex with his wife in the car and their daughter tells him that she has seen them before. Aother gruesome murder shakes the community. This time three people died in a fire and outside there's a woman who behaves like a beast. She attacks Jong-goo who is comically incapable of restraining her. The following day they find her hanging from a tree. Byeong-gyu tells Jong-goo that the woman was raped by the Japanese man and then went mad, walking around naked and covered in a horrible rash. Jong-goo is still skeptic. As he is surveying the murder scene, a young girl dressed in white starts throwing stones at him. Finally she approaches him and says that her name is Moo-myeong (“no name” in Korean). She disobeys him and walks inside the house. He follows her and describes in detail the murders and for a while she sounds credible but then adds that the Japanese man is a ghost. Jong-goo has a frightening nightmare in which he is attacked by the Japanese man who looks like the devil. The following morning his daughter is fallen sick and a bird has crashed on their roof. Since Byeong-gyu keeps spreading the rumor that the Japanese man is the cause of all the mysterious events, Jong-goo and his partner ask him to take them to the place where the man lives, but Byeong-gyu is hit by lightning and they have to take him to the hospital. The hospital is in tumult because the first murderer suddenly awoke from his zombie state and is having an epileptic attack. Jong-goo watches as the man dies after a terrifying agony. Hyo-jin is getting sicker and weirder. Jong-goo's old-fashioned mother-in-law decides to call a shaman. Jong-goo and his police partner decide to try again to reach the Japanese man and enlist the help of a young Christian deacon, Yang I-sam, who speaks a little Japanese. They reach the cabin in the woods while the Japanese man is out, and they find a room with pictures of all the people who got sick with the rush and their victims while they were still alive. They are attacked by the Japanese man's vicious dog until he arrives. When he arrives, he doesn't say a single word. They leave. Jong-goo's partner is traumatized and convinced that the Japanese man is an evil spirit. He shows Jong-goo what he found in the room: a shoe that belongs to Jong-goo's daughter Hyo-jin, the one who is getting sick. He interrogates her but she talks back to him in a hysterical tone. At night, Jong-goo lifts her skirt to check her skin and sees that she's developing a rash. Now Jong-goo fears for the life of his daughter, believes the superstitious gossip and decides to confront the Japanese man. He returns to the cabin in the woods with the deacon. The Japanese man claims to have burned all the pictures. Furious that the Japanese man doesn't cooperate, Jong-goo demolishes his cabin, kills his dog and tells him to leave town. The following morning there's a dead goat hanging in front of Jong-goo's home and Jong-goo is paralyzed and can't get up from bed. His wife and mother-in-law take him to an acupunturist and leave Hyo-jin with a neighbor. When they return home, they find that Hyo-jin has stabbed the neighbor to death. Another gruesome murder takes place: a man called Chun-bae kills his wife and other people, and the murder scene looks like it just was the theater of a ritual itself. The shaman, Il-gwang, arrives. He immediately discovers a dead crow in a drum of soy sauce and senses the presence of a very wicked spirit. He tells Jong-goo that the village needs to kill or expel the evil spirit, the Japanese man. While the shaman and Jong-goo are chatting about the evil spirit, we see the Japanese man opening the door of a truck and finding Chun-bae dead inside. The shaman performs a lengthy exorcism but Hyo-jin gets increasingly hysterical and seems about to die. At the same time we see that the Japanese man is suffering in his den while performing his own ritual in front of a picture of the dead Chun-bae. It feels like a duel between two spirits. Jong-goo, alarmed by his daughter's screams, decides to stop the exorcism and sends the shaman away. At the same time the Japanese man in his shack stops coughing. Jong-goo and his family take Hyo-jin to the hospital where she lies unconscious. Jong-goo organizes a posse to to kill the Japanese man. However, at the end of exorcism the Japanese man runs away as if chased by a ghost. Now covered in blood, he reaches Chun-bae's truck but Chun-bae's corpse has disappeared. The Japanese man sees footprints that lead to his own cabin. Jong-goo and his gang find the Japanese man's cabin empty but are attacked by Chun-bae, who walks like a zombie. They try in vain to kill him until finally they succeed. Then they spot the Japanese man hiding in the bushes and chase him until they lose him on a cliff. They cannot see that he hides, falls and cries: suddenly he is very human. Moo-myeong, the woman in white, is watching him from afar. Jong-goo and his gang head back while the rain starts pouring down. Trying to phone his wife, Jong-goo loses control of the car and hits a body: it is the Japanese man, finally dead. The gang helps Jong-goo throw the body down a ravine. Moo-myeong is watching them. Jong-goo returns home and finds that Hyo-jin is healed. The shaman tries repeatedly to contact Jong-goo by phone cursing that he's a fool. Finally he drives to Jong-goo's home but cannot approach it because he starts vomiting blood: Moo-myeong is stopping him and tells him to leave. The shaman gets into his car and drives away, scared. But he can't leave town because a swarm of locusts bombards his windshield. He has to turn the car back. He finally manages to talk to Jong-goo on the phone and warns him that Moo-myeong is the real evil spirit while the Japanese man was a good shaman like him trying to kill the evil woman. The shaman tells Jong-goo to rush back home and stay with his daughter. Jong-goo rushes back home but his daughter has disappeared. In the middle of the night he searches for her through the village. Jong-goo meets Moo-myeong. She tells him that the Japanese man was the evil one and that the shaman worked with him against Hyo-jin. She claims that the evil spirit is still alive. She tells Jong-goo that Hyo-jin is at home and that she, Moo-myeong, has laid a trap for the evil spirit. She tells Jong-goo that he must wait until the third cry of the rooster or the trap will fail. Jong-goo doesn't know whom to believe anymore: the shaman, who says the woman is the evil spirit, or the woman, who says that she's trying to kill the evil soirit. Meanwhile, we see that Hyo-jin is back home, behaving like a zombie and eating like a monster while her mother and granma watched horrified. Meanwhile, the deacon finds the Japanese man still alive in a cave and demands who he truly is: the Japanese man challenges the deacon to touch him to find out whether he's human. The deacon hesitates and the Japanese man pulls out his camera and takes a picture of him. Moo-myeong and Jong-goo are still talking in the street. After the second cry of the rooster, Jong-goo notices that Moo-myeong is wearing clothes belonging to all the victims, including his daughter's hairpin. He doesn't trust her anymore and rushes home. He finds that his daughter has killed her mother and grandmother, and then the girl also attacks him. The shaman arrives and takes pictures of the massacre, while the girl stares lifeless into the void. We see that the shaman has a box full of all the pictures that were at the cabin of the Japanese man, and the Japanese man has claimed to have burned. In the cave the Japanese man reveals his true nature to the deacon: a red-eyed demon.

It is only at the end, after countless plot twists, that the viewer realizes that Moo-myung was the good one and the Japanese man was the evil one, and that the film is all part of a cosmic battle between good and evil. The shaman is actually an assistant to the devil. His "exorcism" was actually trying to kill the little girl. In fact, he stabs a wooden totem that is a "jangseung", a village guardian. There was no distant battle with the Japanese man: it is just the editing of the two scenes of ritual that makes the viewer believe the two are fighting each other. In reality, the shaman's ritual is directed at the girl while the Japanese man's ritual is addressing Chun-bae. Note that Chun-bae killed his family during or after a ritual very similar to the one performed by the shaman, perhaps a ritual performed by the very same shaman. If there is a battle of rituals, it is between the shaman and Moo-myung’s protection. Jong-goo saves his daughter by stopping the shaman's ritual. The Japanese man's ritual, on the other hand, seems to transfer the evil spirit from the Japanese man to Chun-bae, who is resurrected while, at the same time, the Japanese man becomes human (awkward, fearful). Perhaps this is done to confuse Moo-myung who has been stalking him. The evil spirit is now inside Chun-bae but Jong-goo makes the strategic mistake of killing him, so that the evil spirit is now out again. The Japanese man is still human as he runs scared and even cries. Moo-myung chases him and causes him to be run over by Jong-goo. If it is a moral test, Jong-goo fails it because he throws the body down the ravine. Moo-myung tries to protect Jong-goo's home from the shaman. The shaman then calls Jong-goo to turn him against Moo-myung and then flees town but is stopped by the evil spirit and has to drive back to the village. Moo-myung demands faith from Jong-goo in order to save his family, but Jong-goo "betrays" her before the third cry of the rooster. The result is the extermination of his family, including himself. At this point the evil spirit has moved again into the Japanese man, as the deacon finds out the hard way. The Japanese man and the shaman collect souls by taking pictures of their victims. The Japanese man takes a picture of the deacon before killing him, and the shaman takes pictures of Jong-goo's family after being killed by the little girl.

There are multiple references to the Gospels of Jesus (Na Hong-jin is a practicing Christian): the stone throwing by the woman in white ("Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", John 8); Jong-goo's betrayal of the woman at the rooster crowing three times (“I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me”, Luke 22:34); the invitation by the Japanese man to touch him ("Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have”, Luke 24:37-39). The film opens and closes with a quotation from Luke 24, verses 37-39. Ultimately, Moo-myung tests the faith of Jong-goo and he fails the test.

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )