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The following is a written review, but be sure to listen to our in-depth examination of the film by clicking the audio above. The South Korean thriller is fast becoming one of the most reliable genres in cinema. Devoid of the typical trappings of common Western formulaic films, these movies are seeped in culture naturally, but there is a humanity to them that often escape their far more slickly-produced counterparts. Many protagonists are not conventional heroes, often weak-willed or less-than-honorable characters who are thrust into action. With The Wailing, we are swept into a story that is at its core, familiar but nonetheless, a nerve-wracking experience that tightens its grip with each passing frame.
In the mountain, lakeside village of Gokseong, a strange death has investigators perplexed, including local cop Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won), a chubby, somewhat incapable officer who is called to the scene. They discover a man slathered in blood, eyes glazed, sitting in front of the run down home in a catatonic state. Inside are butchered bodies.
It’s only the beginning as stories of a near naked Japanese man, who recently moved to the town, surface, seen feasting on the corpses of deer in the woods. Soon others in the town become ill, some found swinging dead from trees, and sitings of the strange man continue. Soon Jong-Goo sees him as well, and they track him to an isolated house in the forest, where an unnerving discovery is made but bungled by the cops visit. But when Jong-Goo’s young daughter Hyo-Jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes affected, and the man seemingly connected to her, things turn and Jong-Goo reveals he is a far different man than what he appears.
Written and directed by Na Hong-jin, The Wailing (Korean: 곡성 Gokseung) is his third film and a bit of a departure, stepping away from the grounded authenticity of his early works, The Yellow Sea and The Chaser. Here, he focuses on the supernatural and mysticism while still embracing the gritty realism that has come to be his trademark. It crosses paths with the exorcism tropes of films like Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist while incorporating flavors of zombie and ghost themes. And it does it all with incredible conviction and almost unrelenting tension.
What Na does best is to establish a powerful sense of investment in both the characters and the setting. It’s an hour before the battle for souls really begins and in that time, we become so well-involved with Jong-Goo, by the time the fantastical elements are drawn fully into the story, we understand them with far more plausibility, and relate to Jong-Goo’s plight without question. There are a number of themes at work here, and there is not a character nor a moment that isn’t dripping with metaphor. This is in part, a film about the country’s embattled past, its still-lingering wounds from its years under Japanese occupation, and its need to heal. It’s about gender and strength, tradition and faith.
That said, it’s also a well-made, sublimely crafted thriller that, despite its long length, absolutely compels. There are moments in The Wailing that are breathlessly unnerving. We are led along a purposeful path that is layered in traps and what we know at one point shifts continuously as Jong-Goo spirals further into the abyss. While it indulges in a few traditional Korean film standards, including moments of humor that might not right ring true for Western audiences, and a police force that is nothing like those of America cop stories, The Wailing is a work of a master director, a visionary who, with limited dialogue, can weave a story of extraordinary power. Jong-Goo’s slow, steady transformation serves as one of Na’s greatest creations, a tragic figure of honest intent, vulnerability, and boundless devotion.
What you take away from The Wailing will be a lot of questions, ones that should be shared and discussed. A closing image mirrors an early one, and there are parallels that impossibly seek to complete a circle, however concrete it may seem. Watch this film.
Director: Hong-jin Na
Writer: Hong-jin Na
Stars: Jun Kunimura, Jung-min Hwang, Do Won Kwak
Genre: Thriller, Horror
Language: Korean, Japanese