Korean cinema proves its worth with yet another masterpiece.
The Wailing is a somewhat difficult film to describe. Director Hong-jin Na has created something special here, and for those willing to steel themselves for the content (and running time) this film will take you to interesting places.
A sleepy South Korean town is plagued by episodes of extreme violence. We follow Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) who is a police officer forced to confront these crimes. Families are turning on one another—husbands killing wives and vice versa. The perpetrators seem to be possessed, and are lashing out at those they love. The toxicology reports indicate that high amounts of hallucinogenic mushrooms are in the bloodstream, but many of the officers aren’t certain.
Jong-goo is an interesting character. He is not a hard-boiled detective, but rather a normal guy who is doing his best to take care of his wife and daughter. The film portrays him as somewhat cowardly, but he is also very realistic. (Also, if a woman who was still on fire attacked me I might freak out, too). It is refreshing to not have a tough guy as a protagonist, and Jong-goo’s hesitation allows the mystery to unfold in interesting ways.
Rumors of a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) arriving in the village shortly before the incidents begin gives birth to conspiracy theories. It is discovered that there is a rash on the victims before the attacks begin, and many blame the Japanese man for somehow infecting others. When Jong-goo’s daughter Hyo-jin (Hwan-hee Kim) develops the rash Jong-goo rushes to confront the Japanese man while his mother-in-law works to find a shaman to purge the curse.
The mystery of what is exactly happening is given in small pieces throughout the narrative. We never get a full picture of what is going on. Part of the reason that this works so well is the acceptance of magical realism. What is a dream? What is real? Is that person a ghost? The characters approach these questions in ways that solidify this world as both real and mystical. I do not want to discuss the second half, but it is a whirlwind of intrigue and suspense.
The Wailing is no joke. The violence is brutal and the stakes are always at a fever pitch. We have great moments of humor in the first half to let us get to know the characters, but the second half leaves no time as the events keep occurring.
The directing is simply fantastic. The city is both run down and beautiful. The nature scenes are excellent, and there simply isn’t a dud from a cinematography perspective. The only fault I have with the movie is that the twists in the end might leave some plot holes open. I will not discuss them here, but the ending is somewhat problematic.
If you’re in the mood for a mystery with a crime/horror edge that also has fantastic characters, The Wailing will deliver. An excellent story. 9/10