This 2020, every Tuesday I will reviewing a horror film, and this week we have 2016’s The Wailing
The Wailing is a very odd film, to say the least. Although it is mainly rooted in horror, the film also finds itself in many genres, including mystery, supernatural, thriller, suspense, and most strangely, at times comedy. It makes a odd third feature film for Na Hong-jin, who up until this point, had not tapped into the horror genre, with his first two action/thriller feature films, The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010).
The plot centres on Jong-goo (played by Kwak Do-won), a policeman living in Gokseong, a rural village in the mountains of South Korea. He lives with his mother, his wife, and their young daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee). He begins to investigate a series of deaths by various villagers, who are killed by a mysterious disease that spreads throughout the village. When Hyo-jin becomes infected with the disease, Jong-goo makes it his mission to save her, including tracking down shaman, Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min), and having various mysterious encounters with a “stranger” (Jun Kunimara) and a “woman in white”, Moo-wyung (Chun Woo-hee).
The first thing to say about this film it that it does have quite an imposing length. Running over 2 and a half hours, the film is remarkably long for a horror film, a genre which is often at it’s best when being short, lean and to the point. There is a valid criticism to make about this film that not only is it too long, but it can also be quite indulgent and wandering.
This is particularly true of the first hour or so, which is less horror-orientated, and is more of a standard police procedural, in the same vein of the terrific South Korean thriller, Memories or Murder (2003). There are certain sequences in this segment, particularly the parts of Jong-joo tracking down the shaman, that do feel a little long and not as tightly put together. That being said, the opening is still important to establishing a mood and atmosphere for the film. It immediately makes the film supremely creepy, suspenseful and chilling, a feeling that only mounts as the film progresses.
The film really, really hits its stride after the first hour or so. This is around the time Hyo-jin becomes infected with the illness, which is by far the most interesting plot point from the film. This part, clearly influenced by various child-possession films (especially The Exoricst) details not just a normal virus in making her physically sick, but also effecting her personality as well. As we see Hyo-jin get rashes and be sick from her illness, we also see her disturbingly scream and shout expletives at her father, which is really quite horrifying to watch.
In addition, this plot point is very well set up by the beginning – there is a great sequence where Hyo-jin catches her father cheating, and uses his to blackmail him into giving her toys – and this is used a very clever way of setting up their relationship, as well as foreshadowing later events. The success of this part is really owned to Kim Hwan-hee’s performance. The young actress would of been in her early teens at the time, is very dedicated, committed, and honestly, very scary as the young girl who is possessed.
There is a really mounting tension that carries on throughout the film, and this carries on to the last act, where things get, well, really rather weird. There is extended sequence in the middle which cross cuts between Shaman performing a ritual, The Stranger performing his own ritual, and Hyo-jin kneeling over in pain, which remains completely bonkers and nuts.
Near the actual end, however, is when things get very twisty and turny. The film subverts expectations, and gives numerous twists, and has a very ballsy, surprising, and also, quite downbeat conclusion.
The end result is at times, quite indulgent, but always, strange, surreal, mesmerising and interesting. Despite tapping into multiple genres, this film still feels like a terrifying horror film through and through, and one that horror fans, although might take a little getting use, will still purely love.
Next time: The Innocents (1961)