Director: Na Hong-jin
Starring: Kwak Do-won, Chun Woo-hee, Jun Kunimura
Review Author: Tony
The biggest bonus this year after Parasite’s abundant success at the Academy Awards is the introduction of Korean cinema to wider audiences. The Korean film industry is one of the most praised across the globe, from its golden age in the 60s to a post modern revival in the 90s, the number of outstanding films is due largely to the plethora of talented filmmakers and actors as well as a strong sense of cultural identity amongst its citizens. From what I’ve seen over the years is most film enthusiasts introduction to Korean film is the classic Oldboy, one of the most praised foreign films of all time as well as a standout amongst modern neo-noir films. My first glimpse was a late night showing of The Chaser on Film 4, an unflinching and pitch black thriller directed by Na Hong-jin.
The Chaser opened up a personal Pandora’s Box which had me seeking out hard-hitting Asian cinema, especially genres such as drama, thrillers and horror. What made The Chaser such a landmark film in terms of my love of cinema was the lack of Hollywood sheen throughout. There was this absence of spectacle or edginess usually seen in Hollywood movies which attempt to manufacture tension or drama through snappy dialogue or exaggerated character actions at the cost of reality or relatability. The world of The Chaser is bleak and distressing because it mirrors our own and doesn’t shy away from the duality of human nature and our complicated expressions of morality. Needless to say, once I found out Na Hong-jin was responsible for another highly praised film, The Wailing, I sought it out with high expectations.
A small rural town is shocked to the core by a recent spat of murders which share a similarity of some kind of viral infection that causes the perpetrator’s skin to break out in sores. Police officer Jong-goo is assigned to investigate these strange occurrences with very little evidence to link each tragedy. As the mystery begins to present more questions than answers, the local populace become suspicious of foreign entities, particularly a Japanese man who has moved to the area recently. As events spiral, fear encapsulates the town and the fight between logic and fear depreciates each day.
With a runtime of over two-and-a-half hours, The Wailing is a Smörgåsbord of ideas and themes. Dipping into various horror tropes such as a deadly epidemic, demonic possession, ghost stories, mysterious outsiders, zombies, and horror folklore, it’s not only a triumph that the film brings all these elements together in a consistent narrative but also produces one of the best Asian horror films of the last decade.
The film lulls the audience into a false sense of security with a pretty humourous opening act where we are introduced to our leading man, Jong-goo, a hapless police officer thrown into the deep end with the recent murders. When these unexplained outbursts of violence continue with little-to-no explanation, the police are left perplexed, and the town begins to echo rumours of a stranger in their midsts, an unwelcome Japanese man. What begins as a slow burn mystery soon delves into a horrific story of how the fear of the unknown can twist our minds and cripple a community with paranoia. Jong-goo soon abandons any form of reason when his family is afflicted and looks to alternative methods to help his family.
Ultimately, the movie is a great tragedy with the primary theme about faith. Director Hong-jin, a Christian, based the film on the tragic passing of a friend to an unknown illness and his crisis of faith after. Christian imagery is present throughout and Jong-goo enlists the help of a local deacon with his investigation. As the investigation bears little in the way of answers, our character’s faith in logic dwindles which snowballs into more and more paranormal events and escalating violence. The ending boils down to a gut wrenching decision for our lead Jong-goo and where to place his faith; a decision even the audience will be left questioning because Hong-jin carefully diverts audience expectations through the film’s runtime.
The atmosphere is unnerving throughout and the cinematography is both beautiful and haunting with a lush rural area but a decaying town at the centre. The acting is superb, especially Kwak Do-won as Jong-goo who injects the role with amazing personality and vulnerability. The Wailing is a horror film of an epic scale with a fairly small setting and a short list of characters. Full of shocking imagery and a heavy subject matter with every action facing dire consequences, The Wailing is a film which will stick with you and burrow its way into your mind for months.
Rating: 4.5 / 5 Tumblers of Soju