The Wailing is a new thriller/horror movie from South Korean director Na Hong-jin. It follows a slightly bumbling police officer in a small town whose citizens are killing one another. Is it due to a strange illness? Or the old Japanese hermit that lives out in the woods? The tension builds throughout providing one of the most intense films I’ve seen in years. I went in not knowing much more than that. I watched a trailer, heard it got some good reviews and saw it based on that because I find horror films can be scarier the less you know. If that’s the case for you, I’ll just say that I highly recommend it. Below is a non-spoiler explanation of what I liked about the tone and ideas. No discussion of specific plot points. The less you know, the better.
Na Hong-jin has previously directed The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, two acclaimed thrillers. This time around, he escalates things into more of a supernatural horror film. While the stakes are established early on with a brutal murder of a wife by a farmer, the protagonist Jong-Goo is a chubby, lazy police officer. He and his fellow police officer are not incompetent but are easily frightened and not used to dealing with serious crimes in their ordinary town.
We hear stories and see them visually about the Japanese man that lives in the woods that walks around the woods in just a diaper, feasting on deer carcasses on all fours, but it’s slightly comical and not literal. At first I worried this movie was more of a comedy. But that isn’t the case at all.
In fact, the stories and kills early on are confusing and the movie stays just ahead of you throughout, making you pay attention and piece together information in an attempt to figure out who or what the ultimate threat is. Ordinary citizens are butchering family members and are covered in boils but conflicting reports from witnesses and doctors keep you from being sure exactly what’s going on.
The story ratchets up once Jong-Goo’s young daughter begins acting strangely and actor Kwak Do-won transitions from schlub to desperate parent. Halfway through the movie a shaman played by Hwang Jung-min enters in a loud and chaotic performance to drive away an evil ghost. And from that point on, you’ll find yourself coming up with theory after theory as to who the ultimate villain of the piece is. The final 40 minutes or so of the movie are just white-knuckle tension as Jong-Goo is given at least three plausible threats and must figure out which are real and which are imagined. It doesn’t help that all three seem to be lying about themselves or others.
This movie isn’t flashy. There is no obvious CG. There is instead a very careful attention to detail in sets, camera placement and lighting. The intense rainstorms that seem to pop up out of nowhere just seems to amp everyone up. The small details of the shanty homes make them look lived in but the shadows may be hiding important, dark details.
The movie is a bit nihilistic with no easy solutions to be found from forensic evidence, supernatural shamans or even the deacon and priest of the local Christian church. It all adds up to a man in way over his head, terrified, but determined to try his best to save his daughter.
My friend and I caught this at a smaller but nice, modern theater. It only had about 50 seats but it was completely sold out. And we were the only white guys there. The rest appeared to be Koreans of all ages. I took that as a sign that they had heard good things about this movie. If so, they were right.
I’d give this movie three out of three thumbs. If you like horror, find it.