Written and Directed by: Hong-jin Na
Starring: Do Won Kwak, Jun Kunimura, and Woo-hee Chun
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"All of this began after the Japanese man arrived."
If you were to ask me what the most genuinely disturbing films from the past fifteen years are, chances are, I’d say at least a few of them hailed from South Korea. Arguably more than any other country, their genre output tends to really digs deep into the psyche, and it typically does so by burrowing straight through the flesh and the heart. To put it quite bluntly, you can usually count of South Korean horror to really fuck you up, be it through twisted plots, savage violence, or searing imagery. Hailing from that tradition is The Wailing, a sort of kitchen sink effort that throws everything at the audience and then some—it’s something of an epic in the sense that it aims to slowly grip the audience with a suffocating dread.
An ominous, inevitable fatalism hangs over it almost immediately, as policeman Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-Won) is summoned to a horrific murder scene. Both a woman and her husband have been slain by a raving madman whose body is covered with mysterious boils, and little-to-no-evidence explains the sudden outburst. Soon, it becomes clear that this is but a herald for a wave of inexplicable violence that befuddles the local authorities. The shaken, superstitious townspeople have their own suspicions about the Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) who recently strolled into town with whispers and rumors at this back. He may or may not be a ghost or demon, depending on who Jong-Goo bumps into during the course of his own bumbling, makeshift investigation, a search that leads him into a personal battle with the sinister forces at work.
Save for the opening murder scene, The Wailing is unexpectedly light-hearted at first: Do-Won’s Jong-Goo is a sort of weary, semi-incompetent everyman whose foibles include screwing his neighbor in the backseat of a car, much to the disapproval of his daughter, a precocious preteen loves her fuck-up of a dad regardless. His superiors often mock him for being late to work, and he’s not a joke so much as he’s the butt of the joke. It’s no wonder that nobody takes him seriously when he claims to have found a lead in a mysterious woman (Chun Woo-hee)—this is a guy who practically jumps at the sight of his own shadow after being told a ridiculous story about a demonic Japanese man who feasts on deer carcasses in the nearby woods.
Or, as Jong-Goo comes to discover, maybe it’s not such a ridiculous story after all. Writer/director Hong-jin Na is obviously in no hurry to confirm the various suspicions that arise in the course of The Wailing. If anything, he seems to revel in playing coy: to a certain extent, it seems as if he’s deployed such a long running time precisely because it allows him to toy with expectations and assumptions. Refusing to move in a straight line, the meandering script trawls alongside Jong-Goo as he uncovers various possibilities: is he dealing with a garden variety psychopath or something even more supernaturally sinister?
Make no mistake: The Wailing may begin with an unassuming streak of humor, but it’s all but wiped away by the time Jong-Goo stumbles upon a ghastly shrine, encounters a demonic dog, and realizes his daughter has been besieged by an unholy force. By the time he and his family awake to a dog’s entrails dangling from their front gate, there’s no denying that, yes, The Wailing is South Korean as hell. It’s a riveting, twisted descent into self-destructive obsession, so often the theme of this country’s cinema. Here, however, it’s bloated and threaded into a bizarre, darkly playful parable about faith that actually opens with Jesus’ words to his disciples after his resurrection: “look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
Because of the film’s length, it’s almost easy to forget that quote until it’s eventually relevant towards the end, at which point Na brings The Wailing into thematic focus, arriving at something of a point. In many ways, it’s his distinct take on The Exorcist, as Jong-goo endures both his daughter’s possession and a crisis in faith along the way—it’s a film that isn’t without its share of scares, but it’s much more invested in charting this father’s increasingly obsessive descent into the unknown. Its length is justified in this respect because it starts to work on the audience in an almost oppressive manner: you need those lighter, comedic, slice-of-life moments early on to contrast with the inevitable darkness that consumes the film. Only 140 minutes elapse, yet it feels more like a lifetime once Jong-goo goes to hell and back—and then back again, even.
Yet another riff on The Exorcist might sound like a bit of a chore, and you could even be forgiven if you immediately roll your eyes at the prospect. Rest assured, however, that The Wailing only echoes Friedkin’s film in spirit: even when it hits the usual hallmarks—such as the obligatory exorcism sequence—it takes on a tenor all its own. This sequence in particular is an unnerving freakout protracted by a flurry of cross-cutting that heightens the intensity. We watch as a kooky shaman performs a ritual that seems to heighten the agony in both the victim and her demonic tormentor—you can practically feel your own nerves being worked up alongside Jong-goo’s. Once it reaches its crescendo, you can understand his frustration, not to mention his resolve to just kill this motherfucker of a demon on his own.
And that’s not even the half of it, quite literally speaking: Na is playfully aware of the expectations here and employs a bit of trickery to deceive and toy with the audience. At first, the misdirection feels a bit belabored, if not a bit of a cheap narrative ploy. With time, however, it cleverly places the audience in Jong-goo’s shoes once the question of who (or what) can be trusted becomes most pertinent. The suspense becomes unbearable as Jong-goo is faced with a climactic test of his faith, intensified once again by masterful cross-cutting between inexplicable images: an enigmatic woman in white, a horrific crime scene, and the face of the unholy one himself.
Appropriately, Na provides few clear answers—The Wailing works itself up to a feverish pitch that leaves the audience in a sort of cold sweat. A full recovery before the end credits is out of the question: instead, a collection of searing images tosses and turns over in their rattled brains. The only certainty here is that you’ve looked hell straight in the eyes, and it doesn’t blink. You see the devil, but he also sees you, and it’s his sinister presence that lingers long after The Wailing subsides.
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