Dauntless, Philosophical Suspense Emerges in 'The Wailing'

Directed by: Na Hong-jin; Runtime:156 minutes
Grade: A-

No matter how far horror movies push boundaries to desensitize audiences with physical gore and terror, there's always something unsettling about the unknowable motivations and manipulations of supernatural beings. In twisted depictions of a spiritual realm beyond our existence, they involve everything that lingers between the extremes of salvation or damnation, ones which either don't align with one's personal beliefs or have warped them into a terrifying state. Why do these being interfere with, often tormenting, the affairs of man? It's a question that lingers at the center of South Korea's The Wailing (aka Goksung), the new horror-thriller from The Chaser's Na Hong-jin, where a lethal and inexplicable disease drives others into a murderous rampage. Grueling transformations of the virulent killers and their victims are just the tip of the iceberg, as the suspected root of this evil -- a fabled stranger who just moved into a small township -- leads to an absorbingly outlandish and consistently disturbing descent into the enigmas of folklore.

The Wailing begins by depicting the calmness of this newly-arrived stranger -- stoically yet eerily played by Jun Kunimura -- alongside a lake in the small Japanese town, quickly shifting to a bleak crime scene centered on the death of a local resident's family. Arriving on the scene is Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a heavy-set and slightly klutzy police officer who deals with the rigors of a doting, yet nagging family and his play-by-ear parenting of his daughter. The revelations once he reaches the crime scene take one aback, where an illness or a reaction to local pharmaceuticals could've possibly provoked the killer toward murdering his family. This isn't the only case, either, as other murders and other bizarre happenings begin to raise red flags about the occurrences. Suspicion shifts toward the seemingly calm stranger shown in the film's opening shot, with claims that the pestilence could be other-world in nature, leading officer Jong-goo to investigate further ... an investigation that's given immediacy the closer it gets to his own family.

At first, The Wailing takes on the presence of a relatively upfront disease thriller, given intrigue by the haunting visage of the still-alive murderer of an entire family propped against a porch, their eyes whitened out and body lightly twitching while covered in all sorts of nastiness. There's no denying that Na Hong-jin wants to disturb those watching in quick fashion, yet he also maintains a degree of levity in his depiction of the police officer Jong-goo, bringing wit and empathy into the equation with his rapport among the other policemen and in his clumsy, yet tender relationship with his daughter. While figuring out the rudimentary pieces of the puzzle involving this epidemic and its potential connection to the enigmatic stranger who just arrived at the town, we're presented with an unlikely hero embodied by Kwak Do-won, whose affable presence -- and the film's inherent charms -- accentuates the slow simmer of intensity by disarming the audience.

This sense of humor isn't to be trusted, though. Vivid imagery of twisted metal, stolen shoes, and animal sacrifice guides the mystery's descent into the dangerous ground of rituals and folklore, centered on the enigmas that surround the Japanese man's emergence in the village. Gradually, the film's lighter elements surrender to ominousness, amplified by the personal connection built toward policeman Jong-goo's daughter, fighting its way through a cloud of haunting surrealism that thickens with each investigative step into the town's growing nunber of murders. Rational thought about the disease's spread caves way to supernatural suspicions, which takes the suspense into territory not unlike that found in The Exorcist, underscored by the introduction of a Korean shaman (a brash Hwang Jung-min) brought in under extraordinary measures. Several lengthy scenes of the shaman's practices could've slowed down the pace, but the raucous and vibrant nature of these spiritual battles with invisible forces -- and the fraught responses from the onlookers -- actually heighten the atmosphere.

Very little about The Wailing is subtle, escalating to a fever pitch that reveals the gruesome extent of the mythical curse upon its victims, underscored by dread-inducing production design that showcases how inhuman the murderers become once the disease truly sets in. Despite the lengthy runtime and the relatively confined scale of the situation, director Na Hong-jin doesn't really allow the audience a chance to catch their breath, fusing elements of a cat-and-mouse crime procedural with the machinations of forces beyond the realm of those quaint human limitations. Granted, like many stories involving unnatural powers, there are curiosities looming over the extent of the villain's magical influence, provoking questions about their restraint over the enormity of their prowess. These are largely answered, however, by reflecting upon the fiendishness of the antagonist's machinations, and eventually what seems like a weaknesses transforms into a crucial and profound linchpin within the story's devilish design.

In broad strokes and macabre displays, The Wailing plays with perceptions toward what's really going on within the village, chaotically manipulating both those working against the malignant curse and, on a meta level, the audience observing the downward spiral of events that it's causing. Bleak ruminations on spirituality and trustworthiness form around the revelations behind why it's happening, though the film's insistence on the ambiguity of good versus evil -- as well as the numerous red herrings created by hiding the truth -- does make one skeptical of the film's lack of forthrightness where it could be beneficial. There's so much absorbing, thought-provoking chaos in the final act, however, that The Wailing earns some slack in that regard, building to expertly-crafted supernatural thrills and profoundly alarming drama centered on how Jong-goo makes choices and adapts to harrowing existential crossroads. It's the kind of exhausting, masterfully-crafted supernatural horror film that lingers in the mind and body for days afterwards, and simply one of the year's best.

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