It's been quite a year for Korean horror films. I was not expecting Na Hong-jin's latest, "The Wailing," to be as effective as it is, to the point where I want to compare it to the likes of "The Shining" or even "The Exorcist." Part of the reason for its tremendous impact on me was because I had no idea what I was in for. I knew "The Wailing" was some kind of horror film or dark thriller, but not the particulars of the story. And I think that's the best way to go into the film.
The story is set in the small rural mountain village of Goksung. Officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) investigates a murder, where the perpetrator killed their family in a wild outburst, then fell into a stupor, and then died. The authorities initially suspect poisoning by fungus, but a mysterious young woman called Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee) suggests that a secretive Japanese man (Jun Kunimura), who lives in the woods nearby, may be responsible. Jong-goo investigates with the help of a Japanese priest, Yang Yi-Sam (Kim Do-Yoon), but comes away frustrated. Soon after, Jong-goo's young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) falls sick. Suspecting that supernatural forces are at work, Jong-goo and his family enlist the services of a traditional shaman, Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min).
At over two and a half hours in length, "The Wailing" feels endless at times, a murky morass of police procedural crossed with supernatural thriller. For a good chunk of the running time, it's unclear what kind of horror movie we're watching, as it shares imagery with slasher, zombie, ghost, plague, and demon possession films. Our protagonist Jong-goo is a well-meaning, but flawed man who becomes hopelessly lost in the confusion of who to trust and who to believe. He is too prone to panicking, lashing out, and failing to see things through. And he's terribly sympathetic because the film does an excellent job of keeping certain ambiguities up in the air throughout. Can we trust the Japanese stranger? The shaman? Moo-myeong? The Christian priest? Can we even trust Hyo-jin herself?
What's more, the information that we're given is incomplete, even at the end after all the hands are played. I walked away from the film still unsure as to who, if any of the players, were ever on Joo-gong's side. It makes the terror and despair of the family all the more palpable, as Hyo-jin's condition worsens and the measures to save her become more and more drastic. Clearly there are rules to this universe and ways out of this situation, but the paths are unclear. At no point does Jong-goo or the audience see the whole picture of what's going on. There's a tour-de-force exorcism sequence at around the midpoint of the film, which is incredibly intense. Partly this is because of what's going on onscreen, and partly it's because the audience doesn't know which characters they're supposed to be rooting for.
I do have some complaints. Frankly, as much as I enjoyed the film, it went on a little too long. By the time a major character reappeared in the final act, I'd completely forgetten that person had appeared previously in a different context. Joo-gong and his family could have used a little more character development, at least to start with. I don't think that the wife and the grandmother were even given proper names. And while the labyrinthine plot, full of twists and turns and misdirections, works very well at getting the audience into the proper headspace, it also makes it difficult to parse exactly what happened during the ending. I'd be hard pressed to explain the actual mechanics of how the murders happened. Someone unfamiliar with Eastern supernatural traditions surely would have been completely lost.
Where the frights are concerned, however, "The Wailing" is one of the most effective horror films I've seen. The experience is a trip through the emotional wringer, and it doesn't pull its punches. I've seen similar stories in Western films, but none willing to grapple with nearly the same amount of gut-wrenching tension and escalating melodrama, especially with a child involved. The only point of comparison that I keep coming back to is "The Exorcist." "The Wailing" takes a very different approach, and treats faith very differently, but the two films are definitely operating in the same territory.
So, horror fans, tread lightly. If this sounds like a film you're likely to enjoy, go forth and enjoy. But be warned that "The Wailing" may test your nerves in unexpected ways.