Though he doesn’t get the same press as his South Korean compatriots Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker), Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil, A Bittersweet Life), or Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), Na Hong-jin has done nothing but turn out some of the best dark, gritty thrillers in recent memory. Following crime dramas The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, it’s been six years since the director’s last movie, but he’s back with the supernatural horror The Wailing (Goksung). Though it’s uncharted genre territory for the filmmaker, it looks like he may start getting the recognition he deserves.
After debuting at Cannes back in May, and breaking box office records in South Korea shortly after, this is one of those all-too-rare cases where U.S. audiences will have the chance to check out an international movie while the hype is still roiling. And you should. Well Go USA just dropped The Wailing into limited release, and if you’re into Korean cinema, dark horror, or tense thrillers, find the closest theater.
Clocking in at near two-and-a-half hours, The Wailing is a soaring, operatic saga full of creeps and scares and more laughs than expected. Gorgeously photographed, this is tense, unsettling, often brutal stuff.
Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won, The Man from Nowhere) in an aloof, inept small town cop. When his isolated country hamlet is besieged by a wave of murders and what appears to be a plague, the investigation takes a horrifying supernatural bend and morphs into an unnerving ghost story. These events all somehow revolve around a solitary, new-to-town Japanese stranger (the legendary Jun Kunimura), and the search for answers takes on an added magnitude when Jong-goo’s daughter is affected, which pushes the normally clueless, jovial father to wicked, brutal places.
Though horror is a bit of a new turn for Na, he makes use of elements and tools he’s worked with before. There’s an underlying nihilism—Gong-soo may not be corrupt, exactly, but he’s hardly a heroic, principled cop. The Wailing is a slow-burn, bit by bit immersing the viewer into the darkness and shadows of this world, gradually ticking up the tension. As long as the movie is—and it could, admittedly, have a few minutes trimmed—Na makes use of the space to amplify the pressure to fearsome, near-unbearable levels.
A twisting, serpentine mystery unfolds and eschews easy answers, posing the same questions to the audience as to the protagonist. Is this outbreak of violence the result of bad hallucinogenic mushrooms, something concrete and real; or is it black magic, ghosts, and something all-together more evil and otherworldly? And who is really behind it all? The Wailing is a swirling eddy, and just when we think we have a handle on it, the narrative current shifts and the perspective changes.
Stunning to behold, Na shot The Wailing on location. Filmed by celebrated cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer, Haemoo), wide establishing shots vividly capture the real-world setting, grounding the film and giving it a distinct sense of place. Grimy, run-down homes, pockmarked dirt roads, wooded mountainsides, all add to the tone and timbre of rural disquiet, of an idyllic place caught up in something sinister.
The methodical, deliberate pace takes its sweet time to get moving, but never lets up. Na’s cool, even hand is on the controls at all times, and there are moments of harrowing intensity that made me push back into my seat and take a deep breath to steady myself. A dueling shamanistic ritual scene is a cacophony of sight and sound. Pounding, pulsing drums crash over jarring, hypnotic images, all brilliantly edited—Na reportedly spent more than a year cutting and re-cutting, and he wields this juxtaposition like a weapon.
Kwak Do-won takes a type common in Korean cinema, a goofy, schlubby cop, and pushes it headfirst into dark, unhinged territory. Helpless as his life disintegrates in his hands, Jong-goo is desperate and lashes out violently, ill-equipped as he is to comprehend the forces that drag him along and tear his family apart. Hwang Jung-min (New World) doesn’t arrive until late in the game, but makes the most of his time as a cocky, captivating shaman who may or may not have any idea what he’s up against. Jun Kunimura provides fantastic support, as always, imbuing his outsider with a stoic ambiguity that keeps the entire film on edge. Chun Woo-hee (Mother) further adds to the ephemeral sensation as a mystery outlier.
Tense and foreboding, The Wailing may meander a bit, but it pushes at typical genre boundaries. Na Hong-jin takes elements of zombies, black magic, ghosts, and possession stories, synthesizes these staid tropes in unique ways, and creates a visceral, moving film that is simultaneously hideous and exquisite, heart-breaking and horrifying. [Grade: A-]