Na Hong-Jin, the director of the highly acclaimed The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, has composed what I can only describe as a beautiful, haunting, and disoriented mess that does not need cleaning. That mess is the subject matter of his new film The Wailing, a genre mashup of horror, suspense, the supernatural, and even the scars of colonialism, all weaved together in a chaotic, slow-paced ride that somehow made a 2 and ½ hour film accessible and engaging.
For those familiar with his work and his Korean contemporaries, just understand that American sensibilities and expectations may run counter to the pacing and climax of this film compared to the structure of American films. I, for one, found the plot convoluted and had to resign about an hour into the film that I could not guess as to where this film is going. You should be of a similar mind when entering the insanity of this movie and enjoy the spectacle and intrigue that ultimately makes this worth seeing.
The Wailing begins with a grisly murder committed in a relatively quiet, remote village hours outside Seoul, where we meet Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak), a dunce of a cop who is more W.C. Fields than Dirty Harry. He is not ready to face the sheer brutality of the murder scene, which will be only one of many that he will face throughout this film.
The mystery of these murders lies in the victimizers, who are not only family members of the victims but who appear to be possessed for having suddenly “gone insane.” Jong-Goo’s failed attempts to find motive are amped, however, when it appears his own daughter is possessed. It becomes clear that supernatural dark forces must be met with even more supernatural forces, so Jong-Goo employs a local shaman to rid the demons plaguing his young daughter. What ensues is, for lack of a better phrase, probably one of the coolest shaman rituals put on screen.
But shamanism is only one component of this film. The prime suspect is an elusive Japanese elder living just outside the village. He is derisively referred to as “The Jap,” which of course signifies the existing tension between Korea and Japan resulting from 35 years of Japanese occupation (1910-1945). Jong-Goo’s suspicions are proven right, but the various plot twists never reveal an answer to why madness has shrouded this humble village.
And when I say madness, this extends beyond grisly murder. There are zombie-like creatures roaming forests, demon figures eating dead animals, and did I mention the shaman rituals? It is absolute chaos, held together not by a controlled center but what can only be described as a black hole where nothing escapes.
When viewing The Wailing, keep an open mind and enjoy the visual aspects, but do recognize the significance may resonate with Korean audiences over Americans (the film, after all, knocked off Captain America for the number one spot when debuting in Korea). Perhaps a sense of colonialism and the notion that not every action has a reasonable conclusion is something to keep in mind, for that is what makes this film great.