VOD film review: The Wailing
Josh Slater-Williams | On 25, Nov 2016
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Cast: Do Won Kwak, Jung-min Hwang, Jun Kunimura, Woo-hee Chun
As a follow-up to The Yellow Sea and The Chaser, it should come as little surprise that Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing is a slippery beast to define, opening as one thing and ending as something completely different, while also becoming several very different things on the road there. It is a furiously weird and inventive film, and thanks to those qualities being stretched over a two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime, it’s also something of an exhausting journey. But the bonkers ride is definitely worth it.
After a biblical quote concerning Jesus confirming he is no apparition to his disciples, we open on a small South Korean village. A bumbling cop named Jong-gu (Kwak Do Won) is summoned to the scene of a multiple homicide, where the killer happens to be perched on the porch of his house, eyes clouded over and skin covered in strange boils and lesions. This is but the first of many similar killings to pop up over town over the following few days, with the apparent perpetrators all sharing similar physical symptoms.
Among the targets of local scrutiny are toxic mushrooms and a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) who’s just starting living in the woods. Other oddities include a weird woman named Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee) warning our protagonist of imminent ruin, and Jong-gu’s dreams being plagued by visions of the accused woodland immigrant terrorising the area with burning red eyes. The terror soon hits home, as Jong-gu’s daughter develops violent mood swings and a rash that begins resembling the symptoms of the recent murderers, alongside severe seizures. He is convinced to bring in a shaman (Hwang Jeong-min) to perform an exorcism. And then the proverbial excrement really hits the fan.
Given his extensive runtime, Na offers up plenty of disorienting tonal and genre diversions to satisfy even the most hardened horror nut. Your mileage may vary as to just how scary any of the individual proceedings are (child possession, zombies and an apparent virus outbreak are just three of them), but that it’s so difficult to get a grip on for nearly its entire length lends The Wailing an unsettling quality that justifies its less-than-lean construction.
Part of the success is attributable to the fact that although The Wailing is full of weirdness to be read for more superficially entertaining purposes, Na’s also packed it with some genuinely pointed ideas, particularly concerning xenophobia and core notions of faith and evil. These lend the rabid madness of the film’s ending a real weight, bringing to mind John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness in its full-on presentation of the idea of the Antichrist and everything that entails; a surprising endpoint for a film that starts off as a police procedural. One suspects English territory distributors wish they could have got away with calling this I Saw the Devil.