THE WAILING (2016) review
written by: Hong-jin Na
produced by: John Penotti
directed by: Hong-jin Na
runtime: 156 min.
U.S. release dated: June 3, 2016 (limited) and June 24-30, 2016 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)
Korean writer/director Hong-jin Na’s third feature-length film, “The Wailing” opens with a quote from Luke 24:37-39 – They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them. Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise up in your mind? 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 – and it’s not until the third act of his absorbing supernatural horror film that you realize in what way that applies here. In the context of that scripture, a resurrected Jesus was speaking to his disciples, but in “The Wailing”, Jesus is nowhere to be found.
What can be found in this film could be deemed as a kitchen sick of horror tropes – a living/breathing ghost, a mysterious demon, a possessed child, a flesh-eating zombie and spiritual rituals – but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t all come together to form an impressive thriller in a real-world setting. Considering its surprising tone and focus, I found myself quite mesmerized by the realistic and (at times) funny characters in this strange, slow-burn story, which led me to continually wonder what exactly was going on (something I’m still pondering).
The story is set in the remote South Korean village of Goksung, a place surrounded by mountains and dense forests and what seems like continuous rain. The dour atmosphere deliberately sets the tone as the camera moves in on the home of a local ginseng farmer, which is swarmed by police vehicles and sound of a wailing villagers being held back by officers. This is where we meet the central character, the doughy Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), who, based on his co-worker and his captain’s reaction arrives in a typically late fashion and going off his body language and reaction of genuine shock at what he sees, is in over his head.
The scene of the crime is a bloody multiple homicide pointing toward the catatonic farmer, who sits on his front porch in a catatonic state with clouded eyes and a rash and boils all over his body; behind him are the bodies of his slaughtered wife and children. Why was Jong-gu late? His mother demanded he have breakfast with his wife (So-yeon Jang) and young daughter, Hyo-jin (a powerful performance from Kim Hwan-hee), before he left for the scene he was called to. A devoted father, Jong-gu dropped his daughter off at school before arriving, unprepared for this horrific and uncommon occurrence that has struck his sleepy village. With the police baffled and rumors spreading, the media blame the farmer’s alarming behavior on toxic wild mushrooms.
Jong-gu may seem like a dim bulb, but he doesn’t buy such reasoning (neither do we), yet his colleagues write him off, since he’s known for being skittish and something of a coward. But even though we’re just getting to know Jong-gu, there is something about his observant curiosity that we begin to trust – he may not have the answers, but there’s a certain intuitiveness about him, he just doesn’t have a strong track record of backing up his curiosity with bold and courageous action.
Fear increases when more strange behavior and sudden deaths turn up in the village. A crazed woman who murdered her family and burned down their home is found hung on a high tree above a windy road. There is obviously some connection here with these murders – but what? Is this a disease, a pandemic? Jong-gu is told these ghastly events started after a lone Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) arrived on the outskirts of the village. There is even a report of this mysterious stranger crouching over a deer carcass in the woods in a diaper, savagely devouring the animal with bloodshot eyes. Jong-gu isn’t convinced of the Japanese mans involvement, thinking there has to be a reasonable explanation for these events, yet he experiences life-like nightmares involving the man.
As he follows dead-end leads, Jong-gu encounters strange behavior that rattles his nerves even further. He and his partner are startled by the appearance of a crazed naked woman outside the police station on a rainy night and he meets a mysterious young woman in white (Chun Woo-hee) outside a murder scene, crouched in the street near him, chucking rocks at the exasperated detective. All of this hits too close to home for Jong-gu when his own daughter starts to show some of the crazed symptoms – a rash that evolves into violent seizures and profane behavior – that have preceded these murders.
Desperate to save his daughter, Jong-gu becomes obsessed with tracking down the stranger and making him come confess and release his daughter from this alleged curse. That doesn’t turn out so well, resulting in an altercation with the old man’s dog. At his mother’s request, a curt shaman priest (Hwang Jung-min) shows up at the gate of Jong-gu’s home, promising an exorcism as long as they do everything he asks. The shaman explains the stranger is a demon intent on devouring the entire village and in an eerie metaphor explains to the concerned Jong-gu that the demon is like a fisherman casting his line out into the water, not knowing what he will catch – in this case, Jong-gu’s precocious daughter has been hooked by his spell.
In his helplessness, Jong-gu agrees to a frenzied exorcism with banging drums, gongs and severed chickens in a sequence that (unknowing to the characters) parallels the Japanese stranger’s own manic ritual with bloody ravens. Soon, the shaman, the stranger and mysterious woman in white, individually confuse an exhausted Jong-gu even further – with each pointing the finger at the other, leaving the detective to decide what move to make in order to save his daughter’s life.
Any current film described as “a horror film from Korea” will pique my interest. I regularly point folks out to “The Host“, “I Saw the Devil” and “Mother” (to name a few) as examples of some of the best horror films period, let along coming from South Korea. You can now add “The Wailing” to the list. It’s not just that the elements in Hong-jin Na’s film already appeals to my cinematic leanings, it’s that it surpasses them with skill and surprise.
This is a rare treat for horror fans or those with an affinity for police procedurals, but the success of “The Wailing” is a testament of a confident filmmaker unraveling his story at his own pace. There are no jump scares here or hysterical music to jolt viewers, but there are plentiful well-earned disturbing scenes and the ambient noises combined with strings and various natural sounds from composer Jang Young-gyu and Dalpalan (“The Thieves“), provide a building tension that accents each moment tremendously.
The talent Na has collaborated with for “The Wailing” is a superb collection of artists. This is his first time working with cinematographer Hong Kyung-po (“Snowpiercer” and “Mother”), who has given the film dynamic, breathtaking visuals. Hong uses anamorphic lens and multiple cameras in order to create definitive changes to certain spaces and in one of the most memorable sequences, positions several cameras during the shamans exorcism ceremony, capturing a 15-minute long take which is simply mesmerizing. It’s dizzying and immersive, delivering an unpredictable experience for viewers. Editor Kim Sun-min, who worked on Na’s previous two films, 2008’s “The Chaser” and 2010’s “The Yellow Sea”, is responsible for deliberate pace of “The Wailing”. Some may write it off as slow (a term I cannot stand) – it takes a little over an hour for the shaman to arrive as a potential savior – but the pacing here bodes well for time well spent with the unlikely lead and ominous foreboding. Together, the cinematographer and editor, as directed by Na, cleverly withhold reveals and resolutions from the audience, resulting in a complex and intense watch.
Reading up on the making-of “The Wailing” provides a greater understanding and appreciation of the lengths writer/director Na went to deliver a film that is a culmination of his own strive for obsessiveness and perfection. It took a total of six years to make and that included three years spent writing and revising the screenplay, six months of principal photography and a year of post-production work. Looking at the film, you may wonder why it took so long to shoot. Well, Na was going for natural light and elements in his environments – when a scene called for rain, like the intense rainy drive along a mountain after Jong-gu and his cohorts confronted a zombie, they waited for actual rain and waiting to shoot certain scenes during the magic hour often found the crew shooting certain scenes over a period of several days. Although the film is set in Gokseong, “The Wailing” also used several other South Korean towns and regions in order to capture the required look of specific locations or scenes. The naturalism and believability of the locations and production design at times feels like a character all its own.
What stands out right from the start though aren’t just the visuals in “The Wailing”, it’s the characterization and portrayal of Jong-gu. This bumbling oaf isn’t the kind of character we usually see headline a horror or thriller. He’s not the burnt-out or maverick cop usually seen in police stories either. It’s a decision that makes “The Wailing” more intriguing to watch, considering what we expect from the films in its genre. In any other movie, Kwok Do-won’s detective would be the comic relief or sidekick, but Na takes a good hour to build his personality and establish his family life as well as showing how he responds to intense situations. This gives Na and Kwok time to develop a strong arch for the frenzied father and time for viewers to determine how they feel about him. Many of the needed laughs the film earns is at Jong-gu’s expense and part of it is because he responds the way many of us would. Out of our element and faced with unfathomable supernatural occurrences, we would mess up, lash out, make rash decisions and become overwhelmed with a feeling of utter hopelessness as our loved one is embraced in certain peril.
The other actors in the film are just as captivating, especially the shaman and the stranger. Both actors in these mysterious rolls play against any expectations we may have of them. As the shaman Hwan Jung-min is convincing as a stoic figure who is unpredictable (possible a charlatan) and someone Jong-gu may not be able to trust, except that he really has no other option. Jun Kumimura (both “Kill Bill” movies) is an unsettling presence throughout, like a slow-fused powder keg of unfathomable evil waiting to go off on the unsuspecting village. Neither of these actors hit any overtly predictable notes although they are playing somewhat familiar characters. They become two absolutely compelling characters immersed in this heavy world Na has built for “The Wailing”.
The climax and conclusion of “The Wailing” (or “Goksung” in its original title) is a whopper, combining all the drama and intensity that has built up throughout the film’s length. It may not be a tidy one, but those are the best kind of endings. You may still wonder what you just witnessed, who was who and what was what, which is exactly how the characters in the film felt.