The Wailing (곡성) – Review

South Korea's "The Wailing"

South Korea’s “The Wailing”

Title:  The Wailing

Hangul Title:  곡성

Literal Translation:  Gokseong

Run Time:  156 minutes

Distributor:  Well Go USA Entertainment (USA); 20th Century Fox (South Korea)

Director / Writer:  Na Hong-Jin

Cinematographer:  Hong Kyung-Pyo

Producers:  Lim Min-Sub, Seo Dong-Hyun, Kim Ho-Sung

Stars:  Kwak Do-Wan, Hwang Jung-Min, Jun Kunimura, Chun Woo-Hee, Kim Hwan-Hee

For anyone familiar with South Korean film and television, it is not an understatement to say that the industry centered in Seoul tends to be far more inventive than the American industry, the latter stuck in an endless cycle of rehashed ideas and average execution.  America beats a genre to death, preferring to regurgitate over and over that which has found even a modicum of success (see just about any found-footage film produced since the abysmal “The Blair Witch Project” or any James Wan film).  South Korea is certainly not free from guilt in that department Their rom-com series and movies can be just as formulaic as the American counterparts and much of what comes out of the country is mired in youth culture, just like in America.   But what sets the Korean industry apart from the American is their willingness to take huge risks on both the large and small screens on a fairly regular basis and thereby breathe new life into various genres far more regularly.

Hollywood, it seems, has taken notice.  20th Century Fox has made a sizable investment in Korean cinema of late, co-producing over a dozen films in exchange for certain distribution rights and, presumably, American remake rights.  And Fox has its hands in one of South Korea’s biggest theatrical hits, writer/director Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing, an atmospheric, tense and immensely suspenseful horror film which takes just about every trope of the horror genre, throws them in a blender and in the process reinvigorates a genre that desperately needs shaking up.

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (in itself a testament to Fox’ faith in the film), The Wailing is set in the peaceful, rural village of Gokseong (the literal translation of the Hangul title 곡성), a town where everyone knows everyone and nothing untoward ever seems to happen.  Policeman Jong-Goo (the always reliable Kwak Do-Wan) is awakened one rainy morning to help investigate a brutal murder of a family…a murder, it seems,was perpetrated by the father of the family.  From the moment we meet Jong-Goo we expect him to be the head of the police, someone who will emerge as the hero and save his village from whatever we’re about to witness.  Instead, Na and Kwak give us a somewhat bumbling subordinate, a sergeant who is often late to work and seemingly disinterested in the dull routine in a town where nothing ever happens. The fact that he fucks around on his wife and isn’t even smart enough to hide the fact from his young daughter Hyo-Jin (the impressive Kim Hwan-Hee) is testament to the fact that this is a man utterly bored with his life.

Arriving at the crime scene, Jong-Goo is struck by the man in and handcuffs sitting on the porch. Covered in festering boils and with eyes glazed over, he seems a broken man, zombie-like.  The horror that awaits him in the main room of the house is beyond unbelievable, almost ritualistic:  an entire family slaughtered, blood covered walls, belongings strew about in heaps.  It clearly shakes Jong-Goo to his core…perhaps being the first time he has even seen any real crime although his career and he are both clearly in their middle age.  A co-worker tells Jong-Goo that the neighbors seemed to think the man had eaten poisoned mushrooms as his behavior had been strange for days.  A reason Jong-Goo is all too happy to accept.

Back at the station on night-shift, Jong-Goo and his partner are discussing the case.  Jong-Goo believes the poisoned mushroom story.  His partner, however, has heard other rumors spreading throughout the village…that strange things had never happened here until an older Japanese man (Japan’s ever impressive Jun Kunimura in an alternately sympathetic and frightening performance) moved into a remote house in the forest.  In fact, he says, one village saw the old man — wearing nothing but a fundoshi – in the forest tearing apart an animal with his bare teeth, devouring it. It’s a true ghost story moment in the police station as the storm rages outside.  Jong-Goo chides his partner for believing such nonsense, hinting at the underlying bigotry of it.  When the electricity suddenly goes out, the two cops are frightened out of their wits at the sight of a naked woman standing right outside the door; yet, when they go out to investigate, the entire neighborhood is dark and the woman has vanished.

The next night, Jong-Goo is late again responding to the scene of a house fire.  When he arrives, officers are trying to restrain what seems to be a distraught woman survivor flailing around like a madwoman, growling and grunting, biting officers to get loose.  Jong-Goo attempts to help restrain her but she breaks free and as one of the bodies the officers are clearing from the house seems to come back to life, both the woman and the victim attack Jong-Goo, shaking him to his core.  Especially so since the wild woman was the woman he had seen the night before, naked in the rain outside the station.  When he notices the Japanese man at the scene calmly watching the events, the rumors take hold in Jong-Goo’s psyche.

As deaths continue to mount, more and more outlandish rumors spread about the Japanese man, his possible involvement with the murderers.  Still, Jong-Goo looks for a more believable scenario.  As he guards the fire scene, Jong-Goo ruminates to his partner about the possible cause.  As they talk, a young woman in white who they have never seen, sits on her haunches just outside the scene and literally throws stones at the two cops.  As the woman is clearly crazy, they try to ignore her.  All the killers had festering boils, Jong-Goo surmises, so it must be some kind of infection; he instructs his partner to check with the local clinics as to any possible outbreaks.

Alone at the scene, Jong-Goo still tries to ignore the woman in white as stones gather at his feet.  Finally, the woman comes nearer, explaining that she witnessed the crime, saw the woman murder her family.  She states that the rumor is that the Japanese man is a ghost who sucks your blood and steals your soul.  And if one has seen him, one must beware…the ghost is stalking you.  Still mentally fighting against unfounded rumors, Jong-Goo seems to gloss over her warnings about the Japanese man; rather he excitedly calls his partner, stating that he has found an eyewitness. Problem is, when he turns to speak with her again, she has vanished.

Besieged by vivid nightmares of the Japanese man’s purported animalistic nature, Jong-Goo is starting to feel the toll the case is taking on him.  And when his daughter suddenly takes ill, displaying symptoms eerily similar to those of others who have gone on to become killers, he enlists his partner and a local villager –who claims to have witnessed the animal side of the man — to pay the Japanese man a visit.  On their way through the forest, the three stumble upon carcasses of dead animals.  “I told you,” the villager screams.  Then as if the spirits are conspiring to keep them from the house, the heavens open up and the three must rush back to the village due to a strange accident that falls upon the villager.

At the hospital, Jong-Goo witnesses the violent death of yet another man covered in boils. That night, he witnesses his daughter undergoing a similar fit during the throes of her illness and when his daughter’s behavior becomes more bizarre, Jong-Goo’s mother-in-law wants to call in a mudang, a shaman, to find out what is wrong with the girl.

With growing dread for his daughter, Jong-Goo decides that he and his partner will try again to visit the old Japanese man.  This time they enlist the help of a young Deacon from the local Catholic church (a nod to “The Exorcist”), ostensibly as a translator.  Finding the old man’s home vacant and knowing full well that they are breaking the law, the trio enter and is shocked at what they find in a hidden room: a makeshift altar, photographs of the victims taken both before and after their deaths, and, in the center of the room, a mound personal items belonging to the victims…and future victims. Amongst the belongings is the shoe of Jong-Goo’s daughter, Hyo-Jin.

Knowing full well that his daughter’s life is in peril, Jong-Goo finds himself spiraling further and further into the realm of uncertainty and panic.  Is the Japanese Man evil incarnate as others so strongly believe?  Is the mudang his family has called in legitimate?  Who is the mysterious woman in white?  Ultimately he’ll find himself torn by this trinity of bizarre outsiders and not only is the survival of the village at stake…but his own family’s fate hinges upon him discovering the true source of evil that has come to visit Gokseong.

If there sounds like there is a lot going on in The Wailing, you’re right…there is.  And in the hands of most directors, this would probably end up a god-awful mess.  But writer/director Na handles it all with the skill of a virtuoso conductor.  Na clearly knows all the tropes of horror films exceptionally well and is willing to misdirect you down the paths most often taken only to pull the rug out from under it all at a moment’s notice.  He expertly keeps the viewer off-balance and, therefore, on the edge of their seat.

In the beginning, one is certain one is going to get a zombie movie.  Clearly more influenced by the recent “infected” trend than Romero’s classic zombies, Na sets it up perfectly…the wild eyes, the biting which one is certain will spread the infection throughout the village, the boils and clouded eyes.  But even this, Na tempers, eschewing smash cuts and deafening sound effects standing in for true scares in favor of a tension and suspense that is truly unnerving.

That tension and suspense is incredibly reminiscent of Hitchcock and rarely in horror films do we see it utilized let alone done well…the last truly great example I can recall is Ridley Scott’s original Alien.  Na isn’t afraid to take his time with the set up; he knows he needs to slowly build that dread, that tension to keep the audience where he wants them, as unbalance as Jong-Goo. Now, Na could not have done this alone and credit must go to both Kwak, as Jong-Goo, and cinematographer Hong Kyung-Po (Snowpiercer).

In the case of the former, Kwak is a journeyman actor know for playing characters who are often conniving businessmen or overzealous military men as he does in the excellent “The Attorney,” (2013), where he brutally pursues the prosecution of student activists, bringing them up on trumped-up charges as the then-repressive South Korean government expects him to.  The Wailing is, for Kwak, is a bit of a departure.  Jong-Goo is not particularly smart or devoted to doing what is right.  He is just your average Joe – a bit inept and bumbling — trying to make sense of what is insensible.  He is not a hero, but an everyman.  With his doughy face and middle age paunch, he isn’t so different from you or me, and Kwak nails it as to how each of us would probably react in similar bizarre circumstances (as opposed to how we imagine ourselves reacting).  He brings levity to the piece as well and in the end…he just doesn’t know what the fuck to do…but he is going to try and do what he can as best he can despite being scared out of his mind.

If the case of the latter, cinematographer Hong Kyung-Po frames the film exceptionally well, adding much to the creepy atmosphere.  Hong knows that the scenery of South Jeolla and Gokseong County do much of his work for him. The remoteness, the seeming tranquility of lush green mountains, becomes a character in and of itself.  Hong doesn’t waste his time on fancy Hollywood lighting set-ups; he eschews that, opting instead for natural lighting for the vast majority of the picture.  This not only serves the locale well, but also the actors who are shot very naturally, supporting the everyman aspect of the characters.  Add in a lot (and I mean a lot) of rain, and the mood of the film naturally becomes creepy.  Hong also understands the benefits of long shots and stationary cameras.  He knows that what you can barely see is many times far more frightening that what runs up into your face.

So, just as we are settling into what we are fairly certain is going to be a zombie film, Na turns that on its head and begins to lead us down the path of prejudice.  This is going to be a story about unfounded fear of outsiders, about exacting vengeance on someone who has done nothing except be different.  This man has done nothing to warrant the suspicion around him except be Japanese.  Now, don’t get me wrong…Na does not beat us over the head with this.  It is done very subtly, aided in part by Jong-Goo’s desire not to jump to conclusions based on innuendo.  Anti-Japanese sentiment due to Japanese Colonial rule over South Korea lingers in the air in this film, but it is never once directly stated.  It is implied.  And what makes this all the more interesting and powerful is that nearly all of the characters in this film are middle-aged or younger…all of them far to young to have lived through Japanese rule.  The prejudice, therefore, is inherited, handed down from prior generations.  Again, none of this is blatant and it can go by almost completely unnoticed especially if one doesn’t know the historical background of the country.

Kunimura, as the Japanese Man, plays his role beautifully well with this respect.  He gives an understated performance that lends him an unrelentingly creepy air when needed and a brutal ferocity when it is called upon.  The problem with the latter for us the viewing audience is we’re never quite sure whether these animalistic adventures are real or if they are simply part of Jong-Goo’s nightmares, a symptom of his succumbing to an underlying prejudice exacerbated by fear and rumor.  Later in the film, Kunimura turns in a heartbreaking performance when we the audience are led to believe he is an innocent bystander of all of this.  Even this fear of the outsider direction Na takes us in, he also manages to turn on its head.

And just when we’re all getting comfortable with that, Na pulls the rug out from us again, referencing both “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” in short order.   As Jong-Goo and his partner set off for the second time to visit the Japanese man, they enlist the help of a young Deacon (Kim Do-Yun, a relative newcomer to Korean cinema) from the local Christian church to serve as their translator.  For those familiar with classic horror films, this gives us a bit of a chuckle.  Clearly, though Na has fashioned his victims to be somewhat zombie-like in a piece of misdirection, their convulsive behavior when close to death was clearly meant to evoke Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”  So when the Deacon shows up, we know where Na is headed.

When Jong-Goo, his partner and the Deacon arrive at the house in the woods (another nod to bygone horror), the Japanese man is not present, but the house is guarded by a chained, black Rottweiler (hello “The Omen”). Na builds the tension is this scene expertly with minimal camera movements and edits. There isn’t any overbearing, ominous music to help build the suspense either. We know the Japanese man could return at any second. The constant barking of the dog as he tries to break free and the utterly realistic performances of the actors gets us there, taking us almost to the breaking point.  And when the dog breaks free to attack (evoking yet another horror classic) and the Japanese man returns, we are unsettled by the utter quiet and simplicity of the ending of the scene.

The nod to “The Exorcist” transforms into much more than an homage when Jong-Goo’s daughter starts displaying animalistic behavior, convulsions and foul language.  We’re settled in for an exorcism movie.  But even here Na plays with us.  Is it really demonic possession or simply an illness?  Huge kudos must go to young actress Kim Hwan-Hee as Hyo-Jin, Jong-Goo’s daughter.  In a performance that rivals (and perhaps even surpasses) Linda Blair’s Oscar-nominated performance, Kim – without the aid of make-up or special effects – gives us an “illness” that is utterly believable no matter how you look at it…demonic possession or simple epilepsy. You buy either explanation…a tack that, again, helps the viewer empathize with the confusion coursing through Jong-Goo.  He desperately wants to cure her…but from what? A natural illness or an unnatural one?  And here is the tipping point for Jong-goo, that moment when he crosses from wanting to find the right answer to needing to find the quick answer.  And the quick answer is that the Japanese man is evil incarnate.

This transformation of both Hyo-Jin and Jong-Goo works because director Na has spent the time in his film to firmly establish their relationship.  Unlike American horror films which give us a whole 5 minutes of “family time” at the beginning and expect us to be emotionally invested in characters, Na carefully crafts the relationship between father and daughter, giving us meaningful scenes throughout a large chunk of the film.  Even after the murders start happening, we get to see real moments between parent and child (and, one wonders at times which is which) that are not throw aways.

When the family calls in the mudang Il Gwang (one of South Korea’s most popular actors, Hwang Jung-Min), yet another outsider enters the fray and we feel we are firmly ensconced in an exorcism film.  Hwang’s shaman is not at all what we expect.  He’s motivated by money, drives a very nice car, sports turtlenecks and a pretentious little ponytail.  In short, he comes off more like a discount Steve Jobs that a heralded shaman.  Yet, he comes with a sterling reputation.  We’re immediately off-put.  Is this guy a quack or the real deal?  Do we trust him or do we not?  After an all-too-brief exam of the girl and the environs, Il Gwang explains that Hyo-Jin is possessed by a powerful ghost that must be driven out else the whole village will perish…and then the ghost will move on to the next village.

Not sure what or who to believe, Jong-Goo reluctantly agrees…and he agrees not interrupt the proceedings or the consequences will be dire.  And in a stunningly orchestrated climax to the film (at just over the half way mark), Na gives us a cacophonous, riotous “exorcism” steeped in mysticism (nod to “The Serpent and the Rainbow”?) that is almost unbearable in its unrelenting tension.  Hwang as the mudang, Kim as daughter Hyo-Jin and Kunimura as the Japanese man give stunning performances enhanced by Na’s judicious editing and Hong’s gorgeous cinematography.  It’s beautiful and brutal and almost too painful to watch.  We know utterly how Jong-Goo feels when he stops it all.

After that, our final reference to “The Exorcist” occurs when Jong-Goo and the Deacon seek out the guidance of the church Pastor.  The Pastor explains he has heard many things about the Japanese man…that he is a university professor, a monk…many different things, and yet Jong-Goo chooses to believe the worst. With unrecognized irony, the Pastor asks, “This ghost?  Have you seen it?  How can you believe in it if you have not seen it?”  Ultimately he tells him that the Church can not offer any assistance.

After that, the film moves confidently toward its conclusion, losing none of the suspense or horror along the way despite still having nearly half of its running time to go.  Na expertly shifts the focus amongst all the different elements.  What is evil?  Who is evil?  Who do I trust?  Who do I believe?  Is evil merely a matter of perspective?  How do you recognize evil and if you can’t how do you fight it? Jong-Goo in paralyzed…by fear…by doubt…by the need to be rational…by his emotion…by who or what to believe in.  And we viewers share the depth of his despair.

In the end, Na delivers a stunning film full of depth and unbelievable amounts of suspense and tension.  He never once lets up, managing to create a film which is both an homage to some of the best horror films ever made and a steely deconstruction of them.  He takes the mythology of horror and reweaves it into a new pattern. He never resorts to gimmicks to illicit scares.  He doesn’t spoon feed his audience (that having been said, there is one moment where make-up effects are used in what seems to this reviewer as a minor attempt to satisfy western audiences).  The ending is purposefully ambiguous (a fact which seems to have caused some consternation to some western reviewers).  Na presents a lot of questions, but offers no easy answers…because ultimately, like in real life, there aren’t any.

If you like your horror films complex and nuanced, I urge you to seek out this movie when it arrives digitally or on disc (the film is available now on EST and Transactional video on demand, with disc distribution in early October).  There is a lot to see in The Wailing and you may walk away with more questions than answers, but it will stay in your mind long after the end titles have faded to black.  Rarely is cinematic horror this good.

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