The U.S. title of Na Hong-jin’s new film, The Wailing, suggests tone more than it does sound. There is wailing to be heard here, yes, and plenty of it, but in two words Na coyly predicts his audience’s reaction to the movie’s grim tableaus of a county in spiritual strife. Though The Wailing ostensibly falls in the “horror” bin, Na trades in doubt and especially despair more than in what we think of as “horror.” He isn’t out to terrify us. He’s out to corrode our souls, much in the same way that his protagonist’s faith is corroded after being subject to both divine and infernal tests over the course of the film. You may not leave the theater scared, but you will leave it scarred, which is by far a more substantive response than naked fear.
Not that there isn’t enough horror in The Wailing to make our skin crawl, our stomachs churn, our eyes pinch shut. This is an incredibly creepy and oft-unsettling film, but Na finds the tug of disbelief far more upsetting than the sight of bodies cut apart and blood splattering the wall. What do you do when your holy authority figures fail you? What do you do when you can’t trust your perception? Na has made these ideas, though hardly new in the horror canon, his film’s full purpose, and his conclusions are devastatingly bleak. When The Wailing arrives at its final, spectacular half hour, you’ll vow never to ask these questions about your own life, ever.
The Wailing unfolds in Gokseong County, an agricultural community nestled among South Korea’s southern provinces. It’s a lovely, bucolic setting that Na and his cinematographer, the incredible Hong Kyung-pyo, take fullest advantage of aesthetically and thematically: Every shot could be put in a frame and hung up in an art gallery. The hushed serenity blanketing The Wailing’s opening images creates an atmosphere of peace that Na is all too happy to subvert (similar to how he subverts Bible verses). The film’s first full sequence shatters the calm as Sergeant Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won, turning in a knockout performance) is called to the scene of a savage multiple murder. When Jong-gu shows up, all is bedlam; people are screaming and crying, emergency workers litter the area like ants at a gory picnic, and the killer sits in a stupor, unaware of neither the mayhem nor the vicious boils coating their skin.
It’s a crime unlike any Jong-gu and his colleagues have ever encountered. They’re as devastated as the friends and neighbors of the slain. Worse, it keeps happening: Otherwise rational people break out in hives, go berserk, and slaughter their families. The town rumor mill suggests that a nameless Japanese man (Jun Kunimura), referred to in the credits as “the Stranger” and by the characters as “the Jap,” is responsible for the insanity, but the “how” and “why” are unknown. So Jong-gu attempts to solve the mystery, and with increasing desperation when his daughter contracts the illness and starts losing her mind. It’s a tale of a father’s love pitted against forces outside his control and which he does not comprehend.
Jong-gu isn’t alone in his misunderstanding, though. We’re right there with him. Na has made The Wailing with great density and a meticulous attention to detail. At first glance that might look an awful lot like ambivalence (at best) or sloppy storytelling (at worst), but as the film goes further and further into the realm of unabated madness, Na’s grip on his narrative tightens. What causes confusion is the through line of uncertainty. We’re not sure what we’re seeing because our audience anchor, Jong-gu, isn’t sure what he’s seeing, or whom to rely on. Like Can Evrenol’s Baskin, The Wailing benefits from our submission to the unknown; the film operates on illogic rather than logic, and is most effective when we meet it on those terms. It makes sense only when we stop asking it to be sensible.
Obtuseness is a necessary experiential component of The Wailing as cinema. Like Jong-gu, we’re unsure what’s happening or why. He immediately embraces lab results that reveal loads of psychopathy-inducing mushrooms in the culprit’s system, whereas his colleague suspects against all reason that the Japanese man is somehow involved. Discrimination is text here and not just subtext, though Jong-gu refuses it. He instead accepts the tangible, at least until tangibility’s value decays. The sicker his daughter gets, the more frantic he gets. Eventually, he hires a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to perform a traditional exorcism in a dazzling bit of aural and visual spectacle, where Na crosscuts from the shaman to the Japanese man as they each perform their own fiery rituals to their own purposes with clamorous ardor. (If you’re going to cast out a demon, you might as well go full bore.)
By the time we get to that moment, about an hour and a half into the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time, The Wailing has abandoned genre flexibility and settled firmly into a single-minded horror mode. Na denies us easy closure right up until his final, chilling shot. Gone are the film’s macabre sense of slapstick and its acknowledgment of adult ennui. All that remains is pure shock, not the kind that makes you jump out of your seat but rather the kind that keeps you glued there. In The Wailing, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in evil or not. Evil believes in you.
Director: Na Hong-jin
Writer: Na Hong-jin
Starring: Kwak Do-won, Jun Kunimura, Hwang Jung-min
Release Date: June 3, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.