The deviously overwhelming chaos in South Korean film “The Wailing” disturbed and frightened me. The movie lured me as setting the ground under its unnerving mood, and then it grabbed me tight as going wild with its genre elements, and then it pressed me hard as plunging into gut-chilling inevitability during its breathtakingly intense moments of suspense and dread. To be frank with you, I am not so sure about how I can possibly explain everything in the movie, but I can tell you that this is another superb genre piece from one of the top-notch filmmakers in South Korea.
The first half of the movie is about how a small countryside town in Gokseong, Jeollanam-do becomes disturbed by a series of shocking incidents, and it is mainly told through the viewpoint of a local policeman living in the town. During one early morning, Jong-goo, played Kwak Do-won, is awaken by a call and then goes to some town resident’s house, and he and his colleagues are shocked and baffled by what happened. After suddenly going crazy for no apparent reason, the guy brutally killed two people including his wife, and now he looks blank and bloody like a zombie movie extra.
Not long after that, another terrible incident occurs due to similar sudden madness, and the town people become more baffled and nervous than before as a spooky rumor is spread around the town. Jong-goo casually disregards that rumor at first, but then he cannot help but think more about it as experiencing a number of disturbing things. Did he really see something outside the police station when he and his colleague were on night duty? Is there any truth in that unbelievable rumor about some inhuman entity in a nearby mountain forest?
Meanwhile, suspicion is cast on a middle-aged Japanese man living alone in a shabby cabin located somewhere in the forest. This man usually spends his time on fishing at the town river while not interacting with anyone particularly, and nobody knows why this silent outsider came here, let alone who he really is. After spotting the Japanese man at the scene of the second incident, Jong-goo begins to suspect him even though there is no clear evidence, and he later hears one nasty rumor about the Japanese man from others. Is this guy really a bad man? Or, is it possible that he is marked just because of that usual prejudice toward foreign outsider?
And there is a mysterious young woman who seems to know more than she suggests on the surface. When Jong-goo happens to encounter her alone, she tells him that the Japanese man is not human, and then she soon disappears from his sight. When she is shown again at an unexpected point, more questions naturally arise. What is she doing there? What does she want from Jong-goo? And can her words be trusted?
Amidst all these questions, there comes a really urgent matter for Jong-goo. After suddenly getting sick, his young daughter begins to show alarming symptoms recognizable to anyone familiar with “The Exorcist” (1973) and its countless imitators, besides one physical sign he noticed from the previous incidents. Is she actually being under the influence from something insidious lurking around the town? Are she and all those crazy people simply very bad cases of mushroom poisoning, as suggested by medical examination?
Under the masterful direction by the director/writer Na Hong-jin, the movie immerses itself into its mundane rural background as steadily dialing up the level of tension during the first half. Reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003) and “Mother” (2009), the plain but vivid sense of places and people is palpable on the screen with considerable realism, and the cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo, who worked in “Mother” and was recently praised for his superlative jobs in “Snowpiercer” (2013) and “Haemoo” (2014), did another terrific job here. Even the daylight scenes in the film are accompanied with foreboding undertones to agitate us, and the occasional wide shots of landscapes gradually look sinister as the story gets darker with more panic and confusion to be added into its swirling plot.
As the second half begins, a local shaman is introduced, so some kind of order or explanation is accordingly expected, but the movie keeps rattling and disorienting us as smashing our expectations. I was overwhelmed by that nerve-cracking ceremony sequence which is as intense as the climax part of “Whiplash” (2014). I was involved in a desperate chase scene in the forest, while having no idea on what would happen next. And I was amused during the scene in which Jong-goo and a supporting character visit a local Catholic church for requesting a certain help (Catholic Church usually comes with the territory in this field, you know).
I must point out that the plot is adamantly murky and obtuse with many unanswered questions, but I think that is its main point, and that is also where the undeniable emotional power of the climax sequence in the movie comes from. We can clearly see what is at stake, but we cannot be entirely sure about what should be believed or what should be done before it is too late. While this sequence is unbearably tense and unforgiving, it also has a little sense of dark, twisted humor based on its religious elements, and you may look back on the biblical quote at the beginning of the film after it is over.
The movie is supported by the strong screen presence of its main cast members. Kwak Do-won, who rose to prominence thanks to his effective supporting turns in “Nameless Gangster” (2012) and “The Attorney” (2013), is convincing as a flawed ordinary man struggling with the situation way over his head. Even if we do not care much about Jong-goo, we care about what is important to him at least, and Kim Hwan-hee, Her Jin, and Jang So-yeon give small but crucial supporting performances as his family members. While Hwang Jeong-min and Cheon Woo-hee fill their respective roles as demanded, Jun Kunimara radiates the elusive aura of menace and ambiguity, and he is unsettling to watch even when his character does not seem to do anything.
When I watched Na Hong-jin’s debut work “The Chaser” (2008) in 2008 February, I was absolutely thrilled by its many memorable moments, and I did not hesitate at all to choose it as my best film of 2008. His next film “The Yellow Sea” (2010) had many imperfect aspects, but I admired and enjoyed its gritty, relentless energy none the less. “The Wailing” is not so perfect either with many plot holes to be filled, but I was hooked by its increasingly chaotic narrative thanks to its first-rate filmmaking, and I was mesmerized by its stupefying moments of sheer intensity and pressure. Seriously, I am curious about what will be the next step for this ambitious and talented South Korean director, who has made a big leap at his every step along with surprises for us.
Sidenote: The Korean title of the movie is “Gokseong”, but this is a homonym different from the name of the area in the movie, which is written as 谷城 in Chinese. Written as 哭聲, the title means “wailing”, which is the exact English title of the movie.