Director – Hong-jin Na
Cast – Do-won Kwak, Jun Kunimura, Woo-hee Chun, Jung-min Hwang, Hwan-hee Kim, So-yeon Jang, Han-Cheol Jo
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
The Wailing is a film that made waves over the 2016 summer, but it took me six months to give it a go as I could not afford myself the 2.5 hours required to watch it. From Hong-jin Na (The Chaser) comes a flick that is hands down one of horror’s best of the year. Solid direction coupled with an engaging (and ultimately unforgiving) story make this long effort one that is sure to keep your attention, and you’ll be left talking about this experience well after the end credits roll.
When a reclusive stranger from Japan settles on the outskirts of a small South Korean village, the villagers’ suspicion turns to terror when a series of unfathomable murders begin taking place. As the unexplained illness infecting the people around him reaches his young daughter, the lead investigator must enlist the help of a powerful shaman to rid them of the culprit.
It had been too long since my last Asian horror film, and even longer since my last South Korean experience. I don’t know what it is, but there seems to be an unwritten rule that SK horror flicks must be at least two hours in length. Sometimes this hurts the films as they do not have the subject matter to support such a run time, which results in filler scenes that lose the viewer’s interest. That is not the case with The Wailing. Writer/director Hong-jin Na does a fantastic job of keeping viewer interest thanks to a story that I fell in love with.
We follow Jong-Goo, a police investigator who is awoken one morning by a call regarding a homicide. When he arrives at the scene he is faced with a horror unlike any that his sleepy village has ever faced. Something is infecting the locals and forcing them to turn on each other in a zombie-like state. The immediate culprit is of course the Japanese man, referred to as The Stranger, who just moved into the village. He does not assimilate with the locals and his arrival is too convenient to not be deemed a suspect. This will provide for the looming question you will be asking yourself for the next two hours. Is he to blame for the killings, and why is he doing this? Does he have supernatural powers? Is he using them to kill the villagers, or is he trying to stop the killer himself? Your answers will come. The writing not only answers these questions but does so in a genius and creepy fashion that will leave a lasting effect, especially with the climax he has in store for you.
Character-play involving the possible antagonists is what keeps the viewer engaged. Hong-jin Na does this in a giallo-esque fashion, where there are hints that the killer is The Stranger, but there are also signs that he could be the one to save them all from someone else. Throw in the infection of Jong-Goo’s daughter and your attention has no chance of diverting elsewhere. Watching her condition grow insidiously was painful, and actress Hwan-hee Kim did an incredible job of selling this character. This also leads Jong-Goo down a dark path that forces him to do some things that no police officer should ever do, but that every father would do in his situation. I really enjoyed the use of the shaman as well as the help of a local Catholic deacon. There are obvious religious themes to the film as well as numerous nods to South Korean folklore. It isn’t often that we get to see demons and zombies mashed together in a fashion that does not clash, and I give mad props to Hong-jin Na for making that happen.
Na’s direction is equally as great as his writing, and is also credited with keeping the viewer engaged during this long run time. I know I keep mentioning how long the film is, and that is because this is a horror film. Typically, viewers want these genre films to be short and to the point. This is not one of those films, but I want those looking for such flicks to know that this will be equally engaging. It starts with superb atmosphere that provides an ever-long feeling of gloom. The atmosphere informs you not only that something wicked is going on, but that things are going to get a lot worse too. Good performances are in abundance here, with Jun Kunimura stealing the show as The Stranger. He has the fewest lines but his mannerisms expertly sell his character. Our lead is Do Won Kwak and he does well at being the lead investigator of a bumbling police force that isn’t used to dealing with such heinous crimes. So how is Na’s direction of these crimes? It’s great. He succeeds at setting the tone and then follows up with the gory aftermath. You don’t see too many on-screen kills. Instead this takes the Se7en approach and shows us the goods after the fact, which is still haunting. We are treated to live action effects, and what really sells the horror to the viewer is the acting performances. After every kill sequence we are faced with the grieving relatives / villagers who cannot believe that such unspeakable acts would occur in their village. It is this despair that leaves a lasting effect on you. I will also say that there is a scene towards the end of the film where a young deacon comes face to face with an otherworldly force that left chills down my spine. It has to be one of my favorite scenes of the year in wha tis definitely one of the best horror films of recent day.
Overall, The Wailing is an incredible experience. Great direction and a hell of a story will leave your thoughts provoked and your spirit potentially drained…in the best way possible.