While not all films from South Korea contain sadomasochism and extreme violence, it’s fair to say that the country knows how to do these things better than anyone else. Those who’ve seen Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy or Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil will be familiar with the grim, almost perverse edge of The Wailing, where the flaws of man are magnified when faced with unspeakable evil. Though this isn’t to say Na Hong-jin’s latest is in any way predictable. For better or worse, it moves to an irregular beat, and is completely stuffed with content; it may be the world’s first procedural-whodunit-sociopolitical-horror-thriller, with serious overtones of the occult and the undead.
The arrival of a Japanese man in the small village of Goksung coincides with the advent of a mysterious illness, which burns the skin of its victims and sends them into a homicidal rage. On the case is Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a portly, cowardly policeman with a wife and beloved daughter. He and his colleagues recall the inept detectives of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder; though what that film lacked was a spiritual dimension, which is provided here by a ponytailed shaman (Hwang Jung Min). He’s called after Jong-goo has nightmares about a cannibalistic bald man, and his daughter develops the “wailing” illness herself – the shaman tells them that a ghost has possessed their home, and sets about performing rituals to solve the problem.
The Wailing unfolds with twisty, nervous energy, seldom settling for a singular purpose. Opening segments recall George Romero’s The Crazies, with a xenophobic twist: the town blames the epidemic on the Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) simply because he is an outsider. There is goofy humour in Jong-goo’s naivety, though there is Hitchcock in his uncovering of a sinister clue at a suspect’s house. And then there are the sequences of religious ritual – intense, disturbing, blood-spattered affairs, performed and edited with an effective frenzy.
In the first half of Na Hong-jin’s lengthy narrative, these elements don’t quite gel together. Scenes come and go that are effective in isolation but provide little narrative momentum, other than patching together an atmosphere of toxic dread. Thankfully, the climax – where shit starts hitting the fan from all directions – packs a horribly effective punch, at once tense and terrifying. The Wailing is outwardly nonsensical, but also singular and oddly haunting; its flaws may actually endear it to its cult audience.
The Wailing is released in selected cinemas on 25th November 2016.
Watch the trailer for The Wailing here: