Director: Na Hong-Jin
Cast: Kwak Do-Won, Hwang Jung-Min, Chun Woo-Hee
Runtime: 2 hrs 36 mins
Rating: NC16 (Horror and Coarse Language)
Released By: Clover Films and Cathay-Keris Films
Opening Day: 28 July 2016
Synopsis: An old stranger appears in a peaceful rural village, but no one knows when or why. As mysterious rumours begin to spread about this man, the villagers drop dead one by one. They grotesquely kill each other for inexplicable reasons. The village is swept by turmoil and the stranger is subjected to suspicion.
“’Why are you troubled,’ Jesus asked, ‘and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see — for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’” – Luke 24: 37-39
Na Hong-Jin’s supernatural police procedural ‘The Wailing’ opens with the above Biblical quote, but make no mistake, there is hardly any spiritual hope or redemption to be found in this unrelentingly grim story of demonic possession. Set in a quiet, rural village called Goksung (which is also its Korean title), it weaves its tale largely through the eyes of a portly local police sergeant Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), who first believes the string of grisly murders occurring within the village as a case of bad mushrooms but later comes to suspect the taciturn middle-aged Japanese man (Jun Kunimara) whom some locals say is no less than a demon. And yet, because Jong-gu is played here as a bumbling caricature of police incompetence, one suspects that he isn’t at the heart of the story for his investigative skills.
True enough, after a slow-burn first hour, the stakes are significantly upped when Jong-gu’s only and beloved daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) starts developing a rash not unlike those seen on the skin of the purported murderers, which quickly descends into full-on ‘Exorcism’ mode with Hyo-jin shrieking obscenities, suffering from seizures and developing a voracious appetite for everything in the refrigerator. It is also at this point, following an illegal raid on the said Japanese man’s house deep in the woods that leads to the discovery of one side of a child’s shoe he recognizes to be Hyo-jin’s, that Jung-gu starts freaking out – not only does he confront the latter on his own with a Catholic priest who speaks the language in tow, he will also assemble a group of friends to raid the man’s house and hunt him down.
If all that does seem a little too simple for a two-and-a-half hour movie (which we reassure you feels nothing like its length), it isn’t; indeed, there is a delicious bit of misdirection thrown in at the middle involving a local shaman (Hwang Jung-min) whom Jong-gu’s mother-in-law calls in from Seoul as well as a mysterious woman-in-white Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee) who is more intimately involved with the hauntings than she first appears to be. There is a palpable aura of evil and paranoia that grips you from start to finish, but you’d be advised to brace for a most viscerally intense last hour as Jong-gu’s white-knuckled alarm comes to a boil, culminating in a string of shocking reveals that offer no reprieve right up to its heart-breaking finish (and may in fact leave you even more emotionally bereft).
That his movie has such a powerful effect on its viewer is testament to two things that Hong-jin accomplishes – first, in creating an evil so elemental that one feels utterly helpless in its wake; and two, in portraying just as elemental the bond between father and daughter that sees the former abandon rationality and reason in order to save the flesh and blood he holds and loves so dearly. The former sucks you in almost insidiously; at first, one assumes a more conventional explanation behind the murders – not quite the mushrooms but perhaps a demented individual into the occult – which only makes it more terrifying when one realizes that no less than the devil has come to town and daring mere mortals to ‘touch and see’. On the other hand, the latter is appealing in its very simplicity, buoyed by a deceptively straight-forward performance by Kwak that draws you into his plight.
Oh yes, it is Kwak who keeps the film grounded on its feet, even as much of the time is spent suspended between the real and the supernatural. There are a couple of excellent set-pieces here that add to the mood of tension and hysteria. A frenzied traditional ‘exorcism’ ritual with the thundering clash of drums and gongs is staged with magnificent detail here, and superbly intercut with a much lower-key but also more ominous one by the shaman’s apparent nemesis. Similarly, the extended finale unfolds in parallel action, with Jong-gu’s desperate attempt to separate truth from lie as his family’s massacre hangs in the balance juxtaposed against the priest’s own search for the identity of the Japanese man based on a hunch that he gets from a nightmarish dream. The vivid natural settings also provide a strong atmosphere that is rich, lush and intoxicatingly immersive.
Yet it is just as important to bear in mind that there are no easy answers to be found, with perhaps the most frustrating question being why such god-awful things are happening to this particular village and its generally good-natured protagonist. No matter though – there is no doubting that ‘The Wailing’ is a horror masterpiece uncompromising in its portrait of pure evil and the powerlessness of human strength and willpower against its sheer force. Like we said earlier, you’d do best to brace yourself against its inexorable sense of dread and despair, but the method behind the madness is virtuoso filmmaking that makes this one of the best Korean films we’ve seen this year.
(Dark, unsettling and yet thoroughly gripping, this unrelentingly grim Korean supernatural police procedural is a chilling portrait of elemental evil and a heartbreaking portrayal of parental love)
Review by Gabriel Chong