wailing_3Year: 2016
Director(s): Na Hong-jin
Writer(s): Na Hong-jin
Region of Origin: South Korea
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Color, 156 mins

Synopsis: A stranger arrives in a little village and soon after a mysterious sickness starts spreading. A policeman is drawn into the incident and is forced to solve the mystery in order to save his daughter. (Source)

Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing is a behemoth of a film that’s as grueling an experience as it is a richly satisfying one. Preying on the viewer with razor-sharp precision, it lures us in, waits until our guard is down, then pounces with the accuracy of a possessed predator. Crossing genres and expectations, the story presents a tightly-wound examination of faith and spiritual warfare, contrasting biblical metaphor with ingrained societal prejudice to explore the many forms in which evil thrives. With its mixture of supernatural chills and dense, atmospheric mystery, the film isn’t for the faint of heart but rewards the faithful who stay with it until the very end. Na’s technical precision is matched only by his ensemble of performers, bringing to life a cinematic trial-by-fire that unravels with inescapable aplomb and leads up to a punishing climax.

The story kicks off when the sleepy town of Goksong is rocked by a disturbing and infinitely mysterious murder. Two locals are slaughtered beyond recognition, and the culprit is inflicted with boils all over their body and trapped in a catatonic state. On the case is Sgt. Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), an aloof, at times incompetent police officer who is in way over his head. Things escalate when similar cases of the murder continue to spread across town and Jeon’s daughter begins to show similar symptoms reoccurring with each murder suspect. With the threat breaching his own home, Jeon engages in a desperate search, tracing hushed leads of a Japanese man who arrived in town just before all of the murders began. As Jeon’s daughter gets worse by the day and bodies continue to pile up, Jeon uncovers a diabolical plot that threatens to consume him and everyone he cares about.

Daunting but not out of reach, Na presents everything to us in such a calculated, precise way, deftly blending disparate tones and themes for a primal examination of psychological and spiritual turmoil. It’s hard to not be mesmerized from one minute to the next, as Na throws unexpected moments of eccentric humor at us one minute, then assaults our senses with grizzly violence the next. It seems jarring at first, but as things progress, Na continues to tighten the noose around our necks, earning our sympathy and then our fear as he throws his characters into a blender and sends them on a collision course with an immutable fate. Using procedural elements, shamanistic tradition and even a few moments of creature-inspired dread, Na parallels mass hysteria and vengeance, finally dovetailing into a dissection of faith and its very nature. It’s here where the film’s terror comes into focus, looking at our need to believe and make sense of things we don’t understand and latching on to the most primal fear of them all – that of the unknown.

wailing_2Performances are wholly immersive across the board, and each actor brings a distinct slant to everything. Headlining it all, is Kwak Do-won’s Jeon Jong-gu. As Jeon, Kwak is our tether into the nightmare, at first keeping the withdrawn police officer at an awkward distance with some straight-faced deadpan before stepping up and letting his desperation consume him. He helps largely to stitch the film’s quirk with its ruthless cunning, transitioning into someone we’re afraid of and yet completely relate to by the film’s end. Kim Hwan-hee, who plays his daughter in the film, Hyo-jin, has some of the film’s most intense scenes, and at the risk of spoiling anything, I’ll just say that she’s able to completely flip her character into something that’s hard to watch. As the film’s shaman, called in by Jeon to help with his daughter, Hwang Jung-min’s Il-Gwang has a few great moments of his own, allowing us to buy into the film’s mysticism as he does whatever he can do to help. Perhaps the most important and understated of the cast, Chun Woo-hee as a mysterious villager and Jun Kunimura as the feared Japanese interloper play brilliantly contrasting characters that overlap in surprising ways. Na keeps their very nature and motivations in the dark until the film’s final minutes, yet they find ways to create depth and humanize their characters, earning the resonance and palpable sorrow of the film’s final conflict.

Though horror fans will absolutely go crazy over The Wailing, I’d be doing it a disservice by relegating it to a single genre. Operating on multiple levels, Na’s look at spirituality, domestic dysfunction and the existence of good and evil (including how these two halves coexist to create a cohesive whole) is impossible to look away from, turning the helplessness of this characters’ dance with darkness into a hypnotic spell of existential dread. How the film pulls this off while still being funny, wholly accessible and scary is beyond me, but what’s certain is that this is an experience all its own. Putting equal emphasis on nail-biting precision but also depth and nuance, Na’s latest hooks us with ease. Before we even notice, were trapped up in the rapture of its unbearable final frame, and by then, there’s no escaping from its clutches.