The Wailing Pits a Bumbling Cop Against Pure Evil
“Not everything that moves, breathes, and talks is living.”
Na Hong-jin’s first film, 2008’s The Chaser, is a brutally exciting and tense thriller about an ex-detective facing off against a serial killer. His follow-up, 2010’s The Yellow Sea, is an equally engrossing and violent movie about a man’s search for his missing wife. They share a grounding in the real world where the only certainty is death – usually at the wrong end of a hatchet or knife – but while his long-awaited third feature retains the suspense and brutality it injects a taste of the unnatural into the air turning the already horrific into pure, unfiltered horror.
The Wailing opens with the deceptively simple image of a worm being skewered with a fishing hook. Its metaphorical meaning won’t come clear for nearly two and a half hours, but the journey to that realization is fraught with atmosphere, mystery, grim discoveries… and maybe a few laughs?
Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is a hapless police sergeant in a rural community awakened early one morning with a call about a double homicide. He reports to the crime scene – after pausing for a leisurely breakfast of course – and discovers the grisly remains of two people. Their killer sits handcuffed and dazed nearby, strange boils covering his skin, and it’s suspected the man is suffering some sickness due to eating wild mushrooms. Another violent crime occurs committed by a similarly-afflicted woman, and an unofficial theory enters the conversation concerning the recent arrival of a Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) living on the outskirts of town. The situation escalates when Jong-goo’s young daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) begins showing symptoms of both boils and madness, and it quickly becomes a race against time for a cop who barely seems up to the task.
Is something in nature to blame, is the foreign devil responsible, or has something far worse set its teeth into the townspeople and acquired a taste for their very souls? Honestly, none of these options bode well for poor Jong-goo.
The Wailing is every bit as dark, vicious, and spellbinding as Na’s earlier films even as much of the early violence occurs off-screen. We’re shown the aftermath of the crimes rather than the acts themselves, but the weight of the scenes are visible on the screen and on Jong-goo’s face. He’s a bumbling cop unused to such brutality, and as the events bleed into his nightmares it becomes clear that he might not be the man to face these horrors.
His uncertainty increases as the investigation reveals stranger clues and deeper mystery, but when it touches his family he’s forced to act. The hiring of a popular shaman (Hwang Jeong-min) to combat his daughter’s illness as well as the assistance of a Catholic priest bring new elements to the tale as misplaced faith and desperation become just as dangerous as any madman. They also lead to a stunningly edited sequence of two very different characters performing competing ceremonies seemingly aimed at each other.
Thrills and chills are spaced throughout the film, steadily increasing across a 156 minute running time that feels much shorter, but the first act is somewhat deceptive in its lean towards the absurd and goofy. Sure there’s a bloody crime scene or two in there too, but Jong-goo teases the tone with pratfalls, inept excuses for his tardiness, and a soft amiability. Kwak is typically relegated to supporting roles, but here he proves more than capable of selling humor and pathos as both the bumbling cop and the desperately serious man he’s forced to become. Just as compelling though is young Kim whose terrific and intense performance once again has me wondering just how Korean acting schools are training these kids.
The mystery comes with more than a few twists of the metaphorical knife as Na’s story and characters deal in fear laced with xenophobia and superstition, and the revelations offer some dark surprises. Genre shifts are executed fluidly as comedy, action, and horrific thrills work in tandem to hold our attention, and the visuals are equally engrossing as Na’s presents a rural Korea that hasn’t looked this frightening and menacing since Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant Memories of Murder. One shot of a character crawling towards the viewer is particularly unsettling, but others are equally affecting in their beauty, terror, or emotional devastation.
The simplicity of The Chaser gave way to a somewhat overly dense The Yellow Sea, and that trend continues here as things get messy at times with pieces of the story seemingly piling on with minimal cohesion. None of them cause the film to topple though, and their structural value comes clear as the intensity ramps up and the film’s final images are seared into your mind.
The Wailing may appear daunting on the page with its long running time and at times hazy narrative, but genre fans should not pass up the opportunity to experience it. It’s big, earthy, nerve-shredding entertainment the likes of which we rarely see from American filmmakers, and it’s not soon forgotten.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival