2016. Directed by Na Hong-Jin
"See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." - Luke 24:37-39
A dark folktale centered on faith, The Wailing is an unconventional horror film that begins as a crime procedural and slowly transforms into a terrifying examination of good and evil and their place in the modern world.
A small South Korean village has been afflicted by a strange disease that causes its victims to commit acts of extreme violence and then die in the aftermath. As a bumbling police officer begins to unravel the mystery, he crosses paths with an enigmatic woman in white, a Japanese recluse, and a neo-shaman, each of which could be the culprit or a savior. When the officer's daughter begins to show signs of infection, things rapidly spiral towards a climatic showdown between belief and tangible reality.
Na Hong-Jin delivers a masterpiece with The Wailing. His complex script manages to relay the story at a glacial pace that is full of interesting characters, shocking set pieces, and puzzling imagery. The entire film is a mystery within a mystery. There is the surface story about the disease and then the undercurrent of mythology that pulses throughout every scene. There are elements of the surreal contrasted against the very real darkness of small town living, where outsiders are considered a danger and secrets are always threatening to upend the illusion of control. Additionally, there are elements of religious legend that when recognized only enhance the idea of an apocalypse on full display.
Hong Kyung-pyo's cinematography is duplicitous in it's presentation. The scenes of everyday life have a cardboard appearance when compared to the lush scenes of the surrounding wilderness. The supernatural elements are macabre and animated, compared to the muted colors and movements of the village. The humans only act with intent when there is danger present, otherwise they sit and gossip about folk tales of things long forgotten, disbelieving their situation until its far too late. There are some truly beautiful shots offset by the close up recording of the violence as the monsters seem to reach out from the screen toward the viewer.
Kwak Do-won is sensational as the lead detective. He conveys a sense of inconvenience and ignorance that is grounded and often hilarious as the character begins to confront things that should not be. His approach to casual racism and selfish altruism carry the human elements into the finale and while the character is not likable, he is realistic and memorable. Jun Kunimara is excellent as the Japanese stranger, bolstered by some amazing makeup work. Hwang Jung-min rounds out the male trio as the possible huckster shaman who may or may not be helping the investigation. His turn is the strongest of the three, but to explain why would spoil some of the film's greatest scenes. Finally, Chun Woo-hee is the haunting maiden of the forest, whose dreamlike harbinger is the most complex part of the narrative. Is she a spirit of protection trying to save the village? Or is she something more malicious? These are the questions that will stick with the viewer throughout.
The Wailing is not an easy film. It asks some very big questions and uses strong imagery to bring various religious concepts to center stage. The film opens with the above quote from the bible and then infuses Christian symbols with Korean shamanism to create a darkly magical realm where gods walk the streets and devils haunt the night. It's heavy, but not preachy. Faith is the central subject and it's application and manipulation, in both extreme crisis and routine interactions is prevalent through out the film's two hours, 36 minutes run time. Despite its length, The Wailing never seems to lose steam, moving like a river of lava towards it's heart stopping conclusion.
Available now for digital rental, The Wailing is one of 2016's best films. A modern fable that masquerades as a horror mystery, it gives no answers to the many mysteries it weaves, leaving everything to the viewer's interpretation, the type of film that rarely gets made these days. If you're interested in something truly unique that doesn't devolve in the final act, then this the film for you.
Highly. Highly Recommend.