The Wailing is something of a genre departure for writer/director Hong-jin Na, whose tense and explosive crime thrillers The Chaser and The Yellow Sea made a name for him. This new film is ostensibly a horror film about demonic possession, but there is so much more to it than that description would immediately suggest, and whilst we may no longer be in the realm of mostly realistic crime films, Hong-jin has kept the thrilling mastery of escalation that made those previous films such entertaining thrill rides.
The Wailing begins with an unusual death in a small village – Goksung, the film’s original title – and the deaths don’t stop there, with a number of villagers being murdered under particularly strange circumstances. Investigating these crimes is Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak), a cop who you can’t help but feel ended up in the police force in this previously sleepy town more because they needed someone to make the numbers up than because he had any particular aptitude for it. One amusing aspect of The Wailing is how ineffective the police are and how many of the villagers in general react in cowardly ways when presented with danger. This isn’t a film about strong heroes, as many of the men are seen not as saviours for the village, but bumbling, terrified idiots. The Wailing may be a horror film at its heart, but Hong-jin imbues the film with a great deal of black comedy, strongly bringing to mind the Coen Brothers and particularly the dark comedic brilliance of Fargo and its small town cops.
Whilst there are moments of humour in The Wailing, the film is still a real nerve shredder, as Hong-jin puts us through the ringer again and again with scenes of violence and moments of terror. Beautifully shot by the brilliant Kyung-pyo Hong, The Wailing has its slightly goofy moments – a sequence in which a posse of local men battle a zombie is played in a very tongue in cheek manner – but the stunning landscape photography and highly effective lighting, which reveals just enough in pockets of the screen, ensure that we never lose sight of the seriousness of some of the film’s subject matter, or are thrown out of the horror too much much by the black humour.
Hong-jin applies a thriller approach to the horror, with scenes frequently starting out tense and then gradually building to an extreme and high-pitched climax. The cumulative effect of this is a little numbing, and the film does have moments that sag a little, much like The Chaser and The Yellow Sea did, but the overriding escalation carries you through to the film’s thrilling and intense climax.
In addition to being an entertaining horror, The Wailing is far from a surface level experience, with ideas surrounding immigration, coming to terms with a colonial past, and the darkness in the heart of men all bubbling away in the background throughout. The way in which Hong-jin explores South Korea’s colonial history with The Wailing is particularly fascinating, with a strong allegorical theme of South Korea attempting to exorcise this difficult past. This hangs extremely heavily over the film’s challenging final scenes, and whilst it doesn’t offer any easy answers – the conclusions that appear to be reached are actually somewhat uncomfortable to consider – it certainly leaves one with a great deal to think about.
An intense experience, but one peppered with social commentary and a lot of humour, The Wailing is a rich horror film from one of South Korea’s best directors working today.