Director: Hong-jin Na
Screenplay: Hong-jin Na
Starring: Do-won Kwak, Jun Kunimura, Jung-min Hwang, Woo-hee Chun, Hwan-hee Kim
Country: South Korea, USA
Running Time: 156 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I caught Hong-jin Na’s debut feature The Chaser at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2008 and was very impressed. He followed that up with The Yellow Sea in 2010 and although I had a couple of issues with it (my review can be found here: http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2011/10/the-yellow-sea/), I still thought it was exceptionally well made. So when his next film, The Wailing finally emerged, it sat high on my wish list of films to see. Luckily for me a screener link was sent my way to review the film, so I can let you all know whether it met my high expectations.
Before I do that though, let me tell you more about the film. The Wailing sees a rural South Korean village plagued by violent murders committed by villagers who seem to have turned savage. Incompetent local cop Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) tries to get to the bottom of what’s causing his neighbours to lose their minds. The authorities think it’s a dodgy mushroom tonic being sold, but Jong-goo and several other locals suspect a mysterious Japanese man living in the woods has something to do with it. When Jong-goo’s young daughter (Hwan-hee Kim) becomes inflicted by the psychosis and dark supernatural forces seem to be to blame, he enlists the help of a shaman (Jung-min Hwang) to eradicate the problem. This only makes things worse though as the bodies begin to pile up and nobody knows who’s to blame or who they can trust.
I thought this was fantastic and it’s a shame I saw it in February as it would have easily ranked highly up my list of favourite films of 2016. Like Hong-jin Na’s previous work and a lot of South Korean films in general it’s classily produced with carefully lit and framed cinematography, strong performances and top notch production and sound design. It’s incredibly tense and gripping throughout too.
Like a lot of Asian films, there’s a fairly big tonal shift between the first and second half. Here it’s handled beautifully though and happens almost imperceptibly. It begins as a blackly comic mystery thriller which is surprisingly funny, with much of the humour coming from the fact that the police and people of the village don’t know what to do and react in amusingly natural ways (i.e. childlike fear and xenophobic paranoia). The humour gradually dies off though to make way for a straight up supernatural horror film. Much of the naturalism more prevalent in the first half drifts away eventually too, to provide a pretty crazy and highly disturbing finale although there’s enough realism and warmth still present to give impact to some later tragedies. Jong-goo’s desperate desire to save his daughter is particularly well handled and adds emotional weight to proceedings.
There are some interesting themes in play too. With religion featuring heavily, the film follows characters that don’t know what they should put their faith into. The fact that the villagers quickly blame an outsider for the murders takes the film into avenues of racism, xenophobia and mob mentality too.
It’s a very long film and probably could have been shorter without affecting the plot, but at the same time I was never bored. The film has an incredible grip on its audience. I never felt I was watching any noticeably extraneous scenes either, so I had no problem with the lengthy running time.
It’s such a great film in almost every aspect I could have watched an extra hour anyway. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It’s unique and strange without ever going off the rails and is incredibly effective as a mystery thriller, horror film and pitch black comedy. Excellent stuff all around and highly recommended viewing.
The Wailing is out now on DVD in the UK, released by Kaleidoscope.