THE WAILING Review
Director: Hong-jin Na
Korean auteur Hong-jin Na’s THE WAILING marks his horror debut following a handful of crime thrillers that he also wrote and directed. Hong-jin’s earlier works drew many comparisons to films from both Korean cinema and the outside world, but THE WAILING has proven to be a separate story entirely. Though each of the film’s distinct three acts pays homage to various works and genres, it’s safe to say that THE WAILING is quite unlike anything else out there. The massive two and a half hour runtime, the huge and diverse cast, and the multitude of themes combine to form the most epic ghost story to ever strike the silver screen.
Don Wan Kwak stars as Jong-Goo, a fairly inept, airhead police sergeant living in a remote village nestled in the South Korean countryside. As a wave of violent and unexplained murders sweeps the region, Jong-Goo begins to suspect that something sinister is motivating the killings, and that it might target his family next. Jong-Goo’s fears lead his investigation to surpass professional limitations and take him into a world of the occult and supernatural. With the help of a strange woman (Woo-hee Chun) and a hired shaman (Jung-min Hwang), Jong-Goo tries to banish evil from his hometown. Think MEMORIES OF MURDER meets Korean folk tale.
See: banishing evil
What separates THE WAILING from its peers is the breadth of the tale it weaves. The first 40 minutes feel something like a Korean FARGO. Crime genre tropes are obeyed, but delivered with whimsy and humor, and clues are revealed through self-aware contrivances. Once Jong-Goo and co. figure out the true nature of their predicament, however, all pretensions are dropped. The tone takes a dive and devices that were originally planted as gags are paid off in truly horrifying ways. Comical beats still exist, albeit in an exponentially infrequent manner, but they serve mainly to highlight the dire nature of the villagers’ predicament. By the time the credits finally roll, the viewer is left just as exhausted as the tormented souls at the center of the action.
Perhaps Hong-jin’s strongest suit is his carefully calculated imagery. Though THE WAILING is wild and intense to several powers, and the last hour of the film saw me perpetually on the edge of my seat, it never feels intolerable. Do not be fooled, this is a very graphic film, with nothing left to the imagination, but even the most squeamish of audiences will be able to palette the spectacle. Gore is tastefully presented, if such a feat were even possible; always sensational but never exploitative. Yet unlike a Cronenberg picture, the violence never reaches a peak where the viewer is simply desensitized, as each bloody exhibition is perfectly spaced apart to allow for maximum shock value.
The thrills are amplified by a cast that is far larger than a horror film has any right to have, yet still manages to work given Hong-jin’s grand framework. Great performances are delivered across the board, becoming more and more captivating as Jong-woo’s paranoia spreads through his friends and neighbors. The simple townsfolk face their otherworldly tormentors with suitable amounts of slack-jawed stupefaction, but most intriguing of all are the portrayals of the ghosts themselves. Rarely are the undead depicted in film as anything other than somber mannequins, but THE WAILING’s spirits demonstrate a refreshing amount of humanity and, well, character in their roles. The idea that ghosts have the capacity to carry an ethos beyond “boo!” is one that too few horror films care to embrace, and it’s this mindset that further elevates THE WAILING above genre trappings.
This being said, there are spots where THE WAILING’s grasp surpasses its reach. There are so many red herrings, unexplained phenomena, and overall mystery that the plot itself begins to overstimulate in ways that the visuals never do. Certain narrative beats seem to contradict each other, and while it would be foolish to attempt to rationalize the mechanics of a ghost movie, there are points where THE WAILING ceases to be conscious of the shortcuts it’s taking. While many events are shrouded in mystery and some completely lack context, they are never enough to upset what is otherwise a very bizarre story. Thanks to the sheer craziness of everything that is THE WAILING, the gaffs feel right at home, rather than like distractions.
Why would she wear linens on a hike? Doesn’t she know those stains never come out!?
THE WAILING is such a hyperbolic film that it is impossible to discuss without hyperbole. This is horror bigger than you’ve ever seen it before, a massive rollercoaster of insanity that manages to avoid becoming mired in schlock. Though the cheats in the script will vex more scrutinous viewers, this is an unapologetic riot that cares more about being felt than understood. THE WAILING demands your attention, whether you’re a fan of horror or movies in general. No matter what your genre preferences are, THE WAILING is guaranteed to be like nothing you’ve ever seen.