Confusion and paranoia drive the plot in this moody, creepy horror.
“If you go home now everyone in your family will die!”
I try not to base my film choices on runtime, but sometimes you can’t help it. You look at a film, and notice it goes past the 120-minute mark and wonder if it’s really worth your time. Sometimes this can be a legitimate criticism, but it’s really only the sort of thing that you can make a point about after you’ve seen it. Was it worth it, or did it just drag on painfully and pointlessly? When I first saw that The Wailing, Na Hong-jin’s horror about a disease spreading through a small Korean village, I was hesitant. A horror film with that runtime? It almost never leads to good things. However, I was rather surprised to find that the movie not only justified its incredible 156-minute length but managed to not feel like it.
It concerns Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a local cop who is investigating a series of bizarre incidents and deaths that seem to be disease-based. He is initially suspicious of an elderly Japanese man (Jun Kunimura), whose appearance in the village seems to coincide with the illnesses, but is hard-pressed to find any evidence or witnesses – only weird rumours. The only help he is able to get is from a mysterious woman called Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee). Things get from bad to worse, however, when Jong-goo’s daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) is taken ill and begins showing symptoms, and he begins to act more desperately.
The Wailing is definitely a slow-moving movie, and doesn’t really get going as a proper horror until the first hour has past. But none of that is wasted time: tension is built, and relationships and character motivations are established, all of which are needed to make the ongoing drama actually work. Director Na carefully puts every piece of the story in place before moving forward, a tactic which results in a slow burn, but one where the pacing is completely justified and succeeds in entertaining you throughout its duration.
This method is vital, also, for the story to move along properly. Without those, the movie falls apart and collapses under its own weight. The script plays with viewer expectation more than once, and while it never succeeds in pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet, it leaves you so uncertain about where the story is going that you find yourself firmly in Jong-goo’s shoes, unsure of who to believe or where to turn. The more you know about a character, the less you can trust to know how much you understand. By giving us a hero who isn’t entirely loveable, and a range of side characters whose motivations are murky, the viewer is left in the dark right up until the nail-biting finale. Only the deacon character and Hyo-jin are truly likeable characters. That we don’t even know that the hired shaman (Hwang Jung-min) is a fraud or not for a good portion of the film is a testament to the way this movie builds confusion.
One such twist on expectations comes from Jong-goo’s distrust of the Japanese stranger. Tensions regarding the two nations are no secret, so it’s hardly a surprise that a small-town cop would immediately raise an eyebrow at the old foreign man with the shrine in the middle of the forest. That his daughter is suddenly stricken with the illness increases the desperation level, and suddenly as much as we want to side with the stranger (especially when the police starts smashing up his place), but, well, you can totally see Jong-goo’s side. The twists and turns aren’t massive, but there are enough of them to ensure that The Wailing isn’t a slog in any way.
The Wailing isn’t a perfect piece of cinema, but as a horror film it’s pretty great. The acting is top-notch, and the cinematography is equal parts beautiful and creepy. Na Hong-jin knows exactly how to build tension within a story, and by peppering the movie with just enough spooky and exciting moments is able to keep the audience on their toes even as the movie continues past the two-hour mark. The Wailing draws you into its world and doesn’t let you go until the end credits roll about. If you’ve not caught it already, take a bit of time off, and check this one out.
Verdict: Through a perfect blend of writing and mood, The Wailing keeps you at the edge of your seat for far longer than you’d expect
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Hwang Jung-min: Apparently did that ritual scene in one take. So, hey, props to him.
Cutest-performance-about-turn award: Kim Hwan-hee really nails both sides here.
The Wailing (2016)
Also known as 곡성 (Gokseong)
Director: Na Hong-jin
Writer: Na Hong-jin
Kwak Do-won – Jong-goo
Hwang Jung-min – Il-gwang
Chun Woo-hee – Moo-myung
Jun Kunimura – Japanese stranger
Kim Hwan-hee – Hyo-jin
Her Jin – Mother-in-law
Jang So-yeon – Wife
Kim Do-yoon – Yang I-sam
Son Kang-gook – Oh Seong-bok
Park Seong-yeon – Kwon Myeong-joo
Kil Chang-gyoo – Park Choon-bae
Jeon Bae-soo – Deok-gi
Jeong Mi-nam – Heung-gook
Choi Gwi-hwa – Byeong-gyoo