It’s been six years since we’ve heard the name Na Hong-jin, the director behind The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, two fantastic South Korean films that took the genre world by storm when they were released. It was a coming out party for a talented new name in the Asian genre filmmaking scene and, since then, Asian film fans have been patiently waiting for his next film. Earlier this year, his latest project The Wailing (Goksung) wowed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival and then wowed me when I saw it in theaters shortly after that. Now that the film has hit shelves here in the US, I thought it’d be appropriate to share my love of this film with you.
Set in a quiet Korean village, fear and chaos begins to spread across the civilians as people begin to get infected with something, causing them to start killing each other. The Wailing follows Jong-goo (Kwok Do Won), a local police officer who joins an investigation focused on these gruesome murders. Many of the locals suspect it’s the cause of the mysterious Japanese man (Kunimura Jun) that recently moved in, but they don’t know how he’s doing it or why. Shortly after these killings begin, Jong-goo’s daughter is infected and begins to start acting out like the other infected townspeople. Unsure how to handle the situation, Jong-goo hires a shaman to advise how he can heal his daughter. As time goes by, the situation across town becomes more and more dangerous, leading Jong-goo and his cohorts down a path they might not be able to return from.
This is the second time I’ve seen The Wailing and, upon my second viewing two things became clear: 1) I actually felt like I could formulate a proper review 2) The movie is just as good the second time around. Na Hong-jin’s masterful supernatural thriller is the type of film that thrusts itself upon you in the most incredible and awe-inspiring way possible. You’ll leave the theater in silence, taking a few minutes to process everything you’ve seen, especially that wild ending, and then, turning to anyone that just saw it, gushing over what you just witnessed with immense joy.
One of The Wailing’s strongest features is the uncertainty it brings you as a bystander, wondering what will happen next. You’re never quite sure exactly who to trust, even as you approach the final 20 minutes. You’ll have your strong suspicions but when it comes to making decisions, it’s difficult to be 100% based upon the actions of all the supporting characters. The only thing that’s really certain is that there is some supernatural force at play in the town and that the Japanese man is an allegory for South Korea’s historical feelings towards Japan. While Na is the reason for most of this uncertainty, it’s the solid performance by Do Won Kwok, as the bewildered and frightful father trying to figure out how to save his daughter from falling victim to the same virus spreading across town, that unties and elevates all the performances in the film.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is the pacing and overall tonal evolution. While the film clocks in at 157 minutes, you never grow tired and, in fact, you can’t wait to see where this mysterious film goes. As we progress forward and each layer of the film is thinly pulled back, we, the audience, get pulled in further and further just like our lead, racing towards something dreadful but we don’t know exactly what. With regards to the tonal changes, the film, while pretty heavy most of the time, features a ton of comedy within the first hour. Kwok’s nonchalant, yet nervous bumbling idiot personality allows for a handful of laugh out loud moments that almost make you feel guilty because the rest of the film is so serious. It’s great.
With plenty of great moments scattered throughout, there is one elongated tour de force scene that comes in like a wrecking ball and engulfs you in one fell swoop. The scene in particular involves a shaman performing a death hex on whatever spirit has infected Jong-goo’s daughter. It’s essentially an exorcism but the way the scene is shot is super intense. What elevates it is the use of sound and the loud approach it takes in order to make you feel like you’re actually there in the yard, watching a shaman perform this hex in person. Some may have qualms with how it is edited but, even if you can’t look past it, the scene still manages to be pretty damn great.
The added bonus of this film is that it hails from South Korea, which means you’re bound to see some serious gore but, unlike in other awesome Korean genre films, most of the time you don’t see the act of killing and the way the blood is actually spilled. It’s the restraint in showcasing brutality that really helps ramp up the tension, helping leave a lasting impression upon the viewer.
The Wailing is an incredible film, one that manages to bash you in the face with ferocious, palm sweating tension. It’s creepy, thrilling, and the type of supernatural thriller we, as genre fans, have been waiting for. It’s a film that takes you down a rabbit hole and keeps you in the dark for the perfect amount of time. The culmination of excellent storytelling, perfect performances, and led by a director who knows how to take his audience on a ride, it’s safe to say that this is one film Asian cinephiles HAVE to see.
- The Beginning of The Wailing – A very short 2 minute featurette that features generic interviews and some behind the scenes footage. Nothing very enlightening here.
- Making Of – A five minute ‘making of’ that features similar footage from the bonus feature above with the addition of extra behind the scenes shots.
Despite the lack of any real special features, The Wailing is a must-own for fans of Korean cinema or high quality foreign films in general. As a result, I’m not including a blu-ray rating in the final score because it would devalue the film too much and isn’t representative of the film you would be paying for.
The Wailing is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Well Go USA.