The Wailing Movie Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Released by Well Go USA
Written and directed by Hong-jin Na
2016, 156 minutes, Not Rated
Showed at Fantasia 2016 on July 18th, 2016
Do Wan Kwak as Jung-Goo
Jun Kunimura as the Stranger
Woo-hee Chun as the Woman of No-Name
The Wailing is an extremely difficult film to review. On one level, as a cinematic work, a visual narrative, it approaches and perhaps achieves brilliance. It’s complex, compelling, disturbing, funny, and very very entertaining. It also seems to subtly reproduce some destructive ethnic prejudices, and while it does so quietly and perhaps inadvertently, that factor makes it hard to fully appreciate the film’s otherwise sterling qualities.
The story is complicated and winding enough that, despite watching closely, I felt compelled to read Wikipedia’s summary to make sure I got the details right. Jong-Goo is a bumbling but good-natured police officer in a tiny rural village in South Korea. In the first minutes of the story, Jong-Goo is called to investigate a crime scene: a villager has gone mad and murdered his family. Further deaths occur, accompanied by strange sores and lesions, madness and murder and suicide. The police initially find some evidence to indicate that a certain hallucinogenic mushroom is to blame, though this answer doesn’t really satisfy anyone.
A more compelling explanation (to the locals) is the presence of an old Japanese man, recently arrived, whom the villagers suspect of nefarious intentions. But as Jong-Goo continues to investigate the deaths, new players enter the game, casting doubt on the true identity of the evil at work. His daughter Hyo-Jin starts to show signs of the illness which afflicted the other villagers before their murderous rampages. His mother-in-law enlists the aid of a shaman to exorcise Hyo-Jin. The shaman, a hip, sport-coated and pony-tailed urbanite, seems to understand the forces at work and arranges a complex ritual to rid Hyo-Jin of the evil spirit possessing her, but when the ritual seems to hurt the girl, Jung-Goo stops the proceedings and takes her to the hospital, then organizes a posse to hunt down the Japanese stranger. From here things accelerate madly toward the ultimate revelation, through several twists, to arrive rather unfortunately precisely where we were primed to think they would.
The film dances somewhere between horror and murder mystery, and manages the balance very well. There’s a lot of violence—murder, animal sacrifice—and there are one or two red herrings as we try to learn, with Jong-Goo, who the villain really is. There are also several distinct tones throughout the movie, which, handled less gracefully, would have worked against it, but instead create a surprisingly harmonious whole. What begins as a slightly goofy, nearly slapstick comedy—Jong-Goo is really a bit of a screwup, late for work, afraid of everything, and rather dumb—spirals rapidly toward an exceptionally dark and disturbing place. A funny moment early on when Hyo-Jin catches Jong-Goo having sex with his wife in the back seat of their car contrasts sharply with the young girl’s demoniac screams later in the film. But the comedic elements pop up once or twice even in the midst of the horror, as when Jong-Goo and his posse encounter a possessed villager and try to fight him off in a scene that starts very much like that first zombie encounter in Shawn of the Dead but ends on a much darker, grislier note. Somehow it all works, and Jong-Goo’s goofiness actually makes the character all the more tragic in light of the demonic events unfolding around him.
The ending is a bit of a weak point, leaving a number of unanswered questions, but overall the film is extremely polished and wildly engaging. Do Wan Kwok, who plays the hapless police officer, is absolutely perfect, giving a performance that transitions effortlessly from the dimwitted stumbling of the early film to the tragic, screaming desperation of the end. The supporting cast members are all excellent as well, with not a single leaden line of dialogue or incongruous display of emotion.
One of the most fascinating and intense sequences I’ve seen in a movie in ages comes when Il-Gwang, the young shaman, conducts a ritual at the same time as the Japanese stranger is conducting his own. The scene jumps between the two mystics who, in different places, appear to be spiritually battling each other. The rhythmic drumming, chanting, and ecstatic movements of the two ritual experts rise to fever pitch and beyond, and it’s impossible to look away. This scene alone makes the entire film worth watching, to say nothing of the excellent acting, writing, narrative pacing and direction throughout.
The Japanese man’s role is, however, a bit difficult to swallow. I currently live in Japan, and as such it’s hard not to be aware, at least in passing, of the difficult relationship between Japan and Korea. Historically, they don’t get along. I know very little about these issues, but it seems to me that casting a Japanese character in a (possibly) villainous role is at best tone-deaf. I doubt that this was a calculated move on the part of the filmmakers: they weren’t rubbing their hands and cackling as they concocted anti-Japanese propaganda, they were simply creating a plausible horror scenario, which after all often requires an outsider character. Actor Jun Kunimura, who plays the stranger and is in fact from Japan, was presumably happy to accept his paycheck for this role. And finally, The Wailing is not alone in genre film in portraying an ethnic other in this way, with perhaps the most infamous recent case being Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (which, in fairness, I haven’t seen). But two wrongs, as they say, don’t make a right, and in these days when virulent nationalism, racism and xenophobia are on the rise, a bit more sensitivity would have been appreciated.
Having said all that, this is at bottom an excellent, nearly perfect film. It is funny, scary, disturbing, tragic, and never for a moment fails to hold the viewer’s interest. See it.