Nail-chewing and hair-raising, The Wailing is a terrifying slice of supernatural thriller; a brutal, gloomily atmospheric riddle that refuses to be solved; and cast-iron proof of the exciting new wave of original South Korean cinema. It’s relentless, unforgiving, and unforgettable.
A spoiler-free synopsis for The Wailing is difficult, and anyway, it fits neatly into the category of theatre experience one should seek out knowing as little as possible. Most simply, the village of Gokseung begins suffering mysterious outbreaks of brutal violence soon after the arrival of a Japanese man who is thought to be a ghost. When his daughter is affected and starts showing signs of demonic possession, a policeman is forced to investigate the incident in order to save her.
South Korea has been a wellspring of prodigious cinematic insanity since the early 2000s. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is one of the most memorably disturbing films ever, while Thirst is one of only three supremely unique vampire films released in the new century. Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil is one of the most violent films ever. Even Bong Joon-ho, the most mainstream of his countrymen, is most famous for his wild monster movie The Host. (Kim Ki-duk’s wonderfully contemplative work Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, about a Buddhist monk, constitutes an almost shocking departure by comparison.)
Writer-director Na Hong-jin is an on-the-rise filmmaker, relatively speaking: The Wailing is only his third feature film after releasing the lesser-known The Chaser and The Yellow Sea since 2009. Na combines the police procedural of Memories of Murder with the lingering spiritualism of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendor, then adds a healthy dose of madness. The murder scenes are staged like Se7en.
Assisting Na’s vision is exemplary cinematography from Bong’s regular DP Hong Gyeong-Pyo, who takes the rain-soaked environments and creates stunning compositional landscapes that would have proper place in a film directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, one of Na’s Asian contemporaries. He uses the low light of nightfall from Once Upon a Time in Anatolia to masterly effect. Na also receives fiercely committed performances from Woo-hee Chun (Mother), Jun Kunimura (Audition, Kill Bill Vol. 1), and newcomer Do Won Kwak. Hwan-hee Kim steals the show in a spellbinding child performance.
The production design of the secret altars is so pristine, it’s unsettling: one wonders whether Na had a sorcerer as a consultant on set, or whether an enchantress cast a spell on the shoot. The score is sometimes deafening, but incredibly effective at ratcheting up unease and tension at key moments. Sometimes you’ll be convinced you’re going to have a heart attack. More is sometimes more.
Literally translated from the Chinese characters as “the sound of weeping”, The Wailing gradually pulls one into the depths of bone-chilling terror. The first act works slowly, and Na’s use of black humour will either distract or delight audiences depending on their tastes. But once it takes hold, it’s like black magic: it’s foreboding, gruesome, and operatically intense. There’s a late cross-cutting sequence switching between death-hex rituals of the shaman and the stranger that reaches unhinged heights of suspense.
Na is not messing around: The Wailing may be a “genre buffet” of zombie mystery, black comedy, and crime drama, but occult horror is the main event. He embraces the go-for-broke hysteria of Drag Me to Hell: both Sam Raimi and Na like to play in the genre sandbox, and then blow it to pieces. For all its misdirections, The Wailing breaks down your defenses so it can bludgeon you to death with a blood-caked club.
A desperate plea to “just believe, and you’ll be saved” and the misappropriation of a biblical quotation by the other side nearly help The Wailing reach the creep-factor threshold of the “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” reveal from 2015’s breakout horror hit, The Witch. Given the chaos, the uncanny feeling of an Old Testament fable, and the obvious parallels to Job’s tragedy (already mined by the Coen brothers to great, if less dramatic, effect in A Serious Man), a colleague draws a persuasive link with the Tower of Babel, a “chaos ordered by the divine to test the mettle of men.”
The first 40 minutes are slightly muddled and tonally disconnected from the rest of the film, and there’s almost no logic to be found. It’s possible Na got so excited keeping balls in the air that he forgot to tie anything together; it’s also possible – and unnerving – that he chose not to point in any particular direction as to the source of the evil (and to abandon any sense of divine goodness watching over humanity). This narrative ambiguity and the associated gore will send some viewers sprinting for the exits. But as with Goodnight Mommy, fans of extreme cinema will love it.
The Wailing doesn’t just get under your skin: it peels your skin back and infects you with a deadly virus, leaving you exposed and vulnerable when it drops its third-act masterstroke. I’ve written before that horror has been on an impressive run. With The Wailing, it’s now on a rampage. Protect your soul.