Trying to explain the intricacies of a fever dream to someone is as desperate and difficult to grasp as the loose strands of the dream itself. You start by telling about the naked woman standing outside the police station that has no electricity, and then you move on to the near-naked man in the forest eating the rotting corpse of a deer, and finally you detail the terrifying rashes and boils that are appearing on people. There must be an explanation. There must be a reason for this insanity.
The Wailing (isn’t that just the most unsettling title you’ve heard in awhile?) is two and a half hours of someone explaining that fever dream to you. Director Hong-jin Nah (The Chaser) has weaved a perfect masterpiece of terror. Do Won Kwak leads the cast in one of the finest performances of 2016. His almost double-hander with Hwan-hee Kim who plays his daughter, Hyo-jin, creates some of the most unsettling and upsetting scenes of 2016 as a The Wailing displays a modern, Eastern take on the devastating spiritual horror, The Exorcist.
Kwak’s Jong-Goo is at once a pathetic individual – he’s a bumbling police officer who has never really been challenged in his role. There’s a sweet naivety to Jong-Goo that is gradually chipped away as the town he has sworn to protect is ripping itself apart from the inside. Just like Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist, Jong-Goo becomes an individual with a single track mind. As the horror starts to unfold, Jong-Goo reveals himself to be a caring father who intends to do all that he can to protect his daughter from the evil that exists in the world. Do Won Kwak is stunning here, equalled by Hwan-hee Kim – in a year of average child performances, Hwan-hee Kim embodies hunger, anger and is fueled by a ferocity rarely seen in young performers.
What Hong-jin Nah has managed to create here is a horror film for the ages. It gently creeps over you in a wash off comedic confusion with bumbling police officers that feel like they’ve stumbled into the film from Bong-Joon Ho’s equal masterpiece Memories of Murder. Once you realise what is happening, you’re in too deep to pull yourself out. You simply have to see how it screams to its conclusion.
At just under two and a half hours long, it’s a testament to the talent of all involved that there is never a weak moment. There is always a new tangent that is revealed with the exploration of old religion and beliefs and new religion and beliefs. The rapid modernisation of the world has lead to the smothering of different cultures and the history that envelopes those cultures. The Wailing sits comfortably alongside TV series like the great Cleverman and the eerie ghost tale Kuroneko – all three detail parts of culture and folklore that have been either forgotten or simply ignored in modern culture. The consequences of ignoring such tales is realised within The Wailing as people seek a scientific reasoning for the events going on – are these manic and brutal deaths simply the cause of a bad batch of mushrooms in the district, or is it the meddling of the foreign Japanese influence from a stranger in the town?
On the one hand, The Wailing is a pitch black, dark comedy, on the other it is a haunting mystery, and on a third, it’s a pure horror – yet, at all times, it handles all tones perfectly. Even through the initial confusion, you’re never lost as to what is happening, you are always able to make sense of what is going on on screen. It’s an impressively deep film, but never feels exhaustive or tiring. In an era where horror has been ‘reimagined’ many times over, The Wailing sits proudly at the top as a modern Eastern horror masterpiece and will hopefully show Western directors a thing or two. Great horror reflects elements of society and can be elevated above the simple jump-scares. The Wailing has its share of jump-scares, but it is more concerned about gently creeping over you. See this film.
Director: Hong-jin Na
Cast: Do Won Kwak, Hwan-hee Kim, Jun Kunimura
Writer: Hong-jin Na