Already a massive hit in South Korea and a critical darling at Cannes, the ambitious yet wacko genre mash-up picture ‘The Wailing’ is an unsettling and unforgettable experience. Freely mixing tones (though always pushing them to extremes), the film represents twisted Korean filmmaking at its finest.
‘The Wailing’ is an exorcism tale, a serial killer procedural, a quirky small town (or village) satire, a meditation on evil, a dissection of faith, a tragedy, and a comedy all at once. Maddeningly complex and viscerally entertaining, it’s all but guaranteed that you won’t see another movie quite like this all summer, or… you know… possibly ever.
Writer/director Na Hong-jin’s wild ride starts out a little silly. Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is a bumbling detective in a tiny community in the middle of the wilderness. He’s called in early one morning to investigate a bizarre murder. The killer is still on the crime scene, with his skin creepily rotted away. It seems as though he may have been intoxicated on drugs at the time of the crime, but Jong-goo and his team of investigators are having a hard time determining exactly what happened. Part of that is due to the mysterious nature of the crime and part is because the detective and his team aren’t prepared to deal with anything too taxing. Their idiotic mistakes have an almost slapstick sense of humor, with the morbid subject matter played for goofy laughs.
As time goes on, the story becomes more supernatural and serious once it’s clear that demonic possession is involved. More bodies pile up, with the killers left dead by their crimes. Then Jong-goo’s daughter (Kim Hwan-hee, who’s remarkable in the Linda Blair tradition) gets possessed and the cop is forced to take matters more personally. He hires a shaman, who turns out to be an eccentric hipster but still stages an elaborate exorcist ritual that is the stunning set-piece at the center of this increasingly horrifying tale. Unfortunately, no one can ever quite be certain if it works because no one knows the nature of the evil attacking the community. Some blame a Japanese hermit on the edge of town, but the way the characters dismissively refer to him could just be racism. There’s also an equally mysterious woman in white (Chun Woo-hee) floating around making strange statements, but old-fashioned cultural sexism prevents anyone from taking her seriously. It’s a complex case and the longer it goes on, the more blood-vomiting possessed killers pop up.
The film is an epic at just over 2.5 hours. It seems to linger, lag and explode with messy excitement at will. This isn’t a tightly-wound three act story. It has as many as five acts as the filmmaker unfolds his nightmare with an unpredictable sense of unease. The comedy is mostly front-loaded, luring viewers in with morbid humor that softens the setup before turning dourly horrifying with existential implications by the finale. Some may be irritated by the tonal whiplash at play, but for those who give themselves over to this unique cinematic experience, that’s just part of the unpredictable appeal.
‘The Wailing’ is almost a horror movie by default because no other genre label fits as comfortably. It’s certainly dripping with enough explosions of grue and demonic shenanigans to qualify as horror, but also qualifies as a layered exploration of spirituality more suited to the art house, and boasts playfully profane humor that bends it just outside of cozy genre conventions. That complexity is the movie’s greatest strength as well as its troubling weakness.
The visuals are never less than gorgeous. Na Hong-jin takes full advantage of the picturesque rural playground and his show-off scare factory set-pieces. The performances are always credible whether striving for small town mundanity or stretching to supernatural exaggeration. On a technical level, ‘The Wailing’ is impeccable and its visceral impact is impossible to shake off. Where things get murky are in the filmmaker’s desire to embrace ambiguity. He freely plays faiths off each other to question their morality and asks difficult questions about the nature of evil embedded in humanity. However, there are no real answers offered, easy or otherwise. The unconventional long-form structure may contort expectations, but also tries patience as the story seems to wrap up and then dive into uncharted territory a few too many times.
While the film plays as a thrill ride, it doesn’t always satisfy like one and will leave some viewers frustrated and feeling out in the cold. This isn’t an easy horror romp for folks who like to jump at things that go boo. It’s a harsh and vicious vision that demands engagement with imagery that you might be inclined to turn your eyes from. It may be exactly what those who have come to love the explosion of dark Korean genre fare crave, but it’s not exactly a good entry point for the uninitiated. (That remains the perverse perfection of ‘Oldboy’.) Despite Fox’s surprise international distribution, ‘The Wailing’ likely won’t be a theatrical hit anywhere other than in Asia. However, cult status is a whole different ballgame and there’s a good chance that genre nuts will embrace and dissect this cinematic oddity for quite some time.