Director: Hong-jin Na
Cast: Do-won Kwak, Jung-min Hwang, Jun Kunimura, Hwan-hee Kim, So-yeon Jang, Han-cheol Jo, Woo-hee Chun
Running Time: 2:36
Release Date: 6/3/16 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 3, 2016
Writer/director Hong-jin Na's The Wailing is a strange film that shifts from a police procedural to a complicated supernatural mystery that involves ghosts, demonic possessions, blood rituals, and zombies, before the whole bonkers affair ends on a note of metaphysical tragedy. To top it all off, the tone leans more toward comedy than horror, as Na knowingly plays with the clichés of the film's horror elements to a point that borders on—and sometimes crosses over into—parody. It's an impressive feat that the film works at all, because, on paper, its pieces don't particularly seem to fit together.
The film does so many things, though, that it is in constant possession of the element of surprise. Whenever we might think we have a grasp on where Na is taking this material, he makes an adjustment. Those alterations are not extreme, either. One of the benefits of working in such a heightened mode is that even the most ludicrous of developments ends up feeling like a subtle one within the context of the film.
Take our hero. He's a police sergeant of Gokseong County in South Korea named Jong-gu (Do-won Kwak). He is, we quickly learn, something of a dunce and a klutz.
He's late for everything (There might be a wicked joke about this characteristic near the very end of the film), and in his second scene of the film, he has arrived at the scene of a brutal crime after taking his time during his morning routine. He has a hearty breakfast with his wife (So-yeon Jang) and daughter Hyo-jin (Hwan-hee Kim) before dropping the girl off at school. For some reason, he's shocked that everyone is in a rush at the crime scene, until he sees the blood-smeared chaos inside the home of a local farmer—after slipping on some blood, of course.
There have been a string of suspicious deaths and obvious murders through the county as of late. People suddenly drop dead without warning. A woman, who stabbed her family and burnt down the house in order to cover up the crime, is founded hanging from a high branch of a tall tree. The murderer of the farmer and his wife is found at the scene of that crime, apparently high on some mushrooms or, at least, that's what the coroner deduces. The killer's body is covered in a rash and boils.
Something is clearly amiss in the county. There are rumors, as is always the case in such situations, and most of them revolve around a mysterious Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who arrived shortly before the deaths and murders began. Jong-gu is unconvinced, despite a fairly disturbing second-hand story about someone seeing the stranger drinking the blood of a deer carcass in the forest. That tale gives our unlikely protagonist nightmares and prompts him to hide under his desk at the appearance of someone outside police headquarters on a dark, stormy night.
That Jong-gu is, perhaps, the unlikeliest of this collection of character to be the hero gives the film plenty of comic ammunition. He's best described as one of the bumbling ancillary characters of a typical horror movie, and in that situation, he probably would be killed off in the second reel. By the end of the film, he repeatedly has been chewed out by his superiors, has misjudged the investigation into whatever is happening in the county, and has been attacked by almost every imaginable foe. He's part coward and part fool, but there's also something immensely endearing about how quaint his ways are, how resilient he is to adversity, and, especially, how much he loves his daughter.
The last aspect of his character allows Na to reach out beyond the film's jokey stylings—but not too far. It's much easier in retrospect to comprehend the way that Na balances this material. It's filled with scenes of Jong-gu and his allies facing off against earthly and otherworldly opponents—from a dog to ghosts to demons to zombies. Those scenes are mostly played with a comic flair, such as Jong-gu's first encounter with Japanese visitor's dog and the way a band of vigilantes learns that the go-to way of killing a member of the undead is useless against this brand of terror.
In the big picture, stuff such as this is mostly a red herring for the central mystery of the story, and when Na approaches that part, he sets a more sinister tone. There's the second encounter with the dog, which concludes with a seemingly unending series of pained whines. More vitally, Hyo-jin falls victim to the mysterious disease of the flesh and soul that has been consuming the county's residents.
Jong-gu employs a shaman (Jeong-min Hwang) to cure his daughter, and the resulting exorcism plays out in a haunting sequence of juxtaposed rituals, set to deafening percussion and leading to dueling sacrifices. Kwak's performance also finds the right tonal balance. Jong-gu may be a clown, but he's never too much of one. There's genuine heartbreak within his powerlessness to help his daughter (As the possessed Hyo-jin, Kim is eerily effective).
The plotting of Na's screenplay, which depends on a series of acts of demonic duplicitousness and betrayal in the last act, becomes a bit jumbled, especially once the answer to the mystery is revealed. Somehow, it doesn't undercut the impact of the final moments of The Wailing, but that's primarily because Na is not concerned with finding a logical through line for his supernatural tale. He's looking to uncover the emotional one.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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