"Not everything that moves, breathes, and talks is alive." - Il-Gwang
In the village of Goksung, South Korea, a police officer named Jong-Goo has his easy life ruined by a series of brutal murders that have apparently been committed by people who have contracted a mysterious disease that makes them all gross and zombie like. Jong-Goo's partner informs him that a Japanese stranger who lives in seclusion in the mountains might be an evil spirit that is responsible for the disease currently ravaging the village. Realising there might be some stranger danger involved the police crew follow a hunter who has had a run in with the Japanese dude and discover the secluded house he lives in has some sort of altar going down and notably a whole wall covered with photos of those who have become homicidally sick. Jong-Goo finds one of his daughter's, Hyo-jin, shoes in the house but before he can investigate further the police officers are attacked by a guard dog. Rescue arrives in the form of the unknown Japanese guy but strangely no arrest is made.
Back in the village Hyo-jin comes down with the symptoms of the disease and Jong-Goo's mother-in-law fearing evil forces summons the shaman Il-gwang to perform an exorcism to save the soul of her granddaughter. Throughout the movie Jong-Goo has seemingly been stalked by a mysterious woman in white, who wears bits of clothing and jewellery of some of the victims. Fearing she might be a demon the police officer visits her one more time, but she tells Jong-Goo that the Japanese stranger is the one responsible and he must leave his family to their fate to avoid them losing their souls to a demon. Jong-Goo naturally can't do this and rushes back to his house to find Hyo-jin is the only one left alive. Who is the demon, and has Jong-Goo condemned his family to the fiery pits of hell
So let's clear the room of those pesky elephants, it gets pretty crowded in here when it comes to talking about Hong-jin Na's masterpiece The Wailing. Yes it's a South Korean movie made for local audiences, so get ready to read a whole bunch of subtitles, shame on you if watching an Englished dubbed copy. Secondly the movie's running time clocks in at a little over two and a half hours, meaning you are going to have to set aside an entire block of time to wade through this outing in the macabre. And finally, this might be a tad unsettling for some, this isn't an easy movie to decipher as Hong-jin Na dials into Korean, Nepalese, and Christian mythology to present an intricate web that is hard to get a grasp on. You need to listen, well okay read, every line of dialogue and watch closely as there are clues in the background as to what is happening. I'm calling this movie an instant classic, perhaps the best horror movie out of South Korea to date, and will try to review without resorting to the low brow spoiler alerts.
First up the cinematography in The Wailing is an absolutely a delight to watch, we have stunning vistas, things are kept close and personal, and director Hong-jin Na only goes dark when he needs to and be very attentive when he does as there are reasons. One thing that caught my eye, because it was obvious and all, was the amount of rain Goksung and environs are subjected to, not sure if it does actually rain that heavily in the region of the Director was existential with the plight the village folk find themselves in. Doesn't matter, Hong-jin Na uses it to his advantage to present a dream like quality to the movie, the general feel throughout is we are on a long day's journey to night and dusk has already fallen. To put this in perspective I would rate Hong-jin Na on the visual stakes alongside Brit wunderkind Ridley Scott in the visual department.
Okay so without spoilers the plot, and it's a damn complex one kids full of sin and attempted redemption, which isn't bad for a horror flick right? Firstly you need to keep a note of our four leads, at least two of which aren't what they appear. Firstly the Japanese man, no one knows a lot about him, but he definitely has a creepy vibe and his house dials in the freaky deaky like a Boss. Besides the photos of victims of the disease, before and after, there is also an altar with a goat's head and assorted other devil inspired paraphilia. Watch for scenes involving a dead truck driver the Japanese guy happens upon. Secondly the Lady in White pops in an out of police observation, she offers all sorts of advice but doesn't seem to be an active force in the movie, more an interested bystander, and I have my own theories about her. Thirdly the shaman Il-gwang, he might not be doing what he is intended to do, late in the movie a scene involving locusts and a certain box paint a more sinister picture to this character. For those that have seen the movie, dig the pun. And finally Jong-Goo himself, for mine the whole point to The Wailing is the battle for the policeman's soul, he certainly sins enough, gluttony being the least of the seven deadly he indulges in. Make your own mind up about what is happening, there's certainly a lot of room for speculation.
Naturally the movie evolves to the standard three Acts we expect here in the West, but even within this framework director Hong-jin Na isn't making things easy for the sometime horror viewer. In the first act we pretty much have a thriller with a lot of dark humour infusing the mix, this leads seamlessly into a plague filled middle section with scenes that would be at home in any decent zombie flick, including one absolutely brilliant encounter with an infected person at the edge of a forest, before we finally descend into the occult and religious orientated third act that has a lot of people confused about what exactly they have seen.
Hong-jin Na's plot is ambitious including elements of exorcism, zombies, and ghosts intertwined in what could have been a total disaster in less capable hands. This is the sort of movie that proves horror as a genre can rise above its blighted reputation and make true believers of even the most critical reviewer. At once horrifying The Wailing is also a magical experience that will hold you spellbound as it twists your expectations and delivers a unique cinematic universe.
To the horror elements, yes you have been patient up to now so some icing on the cake. Hong-jin Na with some brief exceptions pretty much keeps the bloodshed off the screen. You are not going to be privy to the carnage that goes down but rather you follow police officer Jong-Goo in investigating the aftermath, full marks there to the set designers things are kept on the bloody side and universally there is a grunge feeling to the murder scenes. However, and hold onto your linen kids, one of the best depictions of a demon I have ever seen which will invade your dreams as the third act reaches its conclusion. By now I think everyone has probably seen one too many possessed scenes, but if that's your bag then dial in for a boatload. I did mention we get zombies right? And to round out there's some dark humour running through the movie that will bring a smile to your dial.
For those after some sexy times we do get a sex scene, though it is hardly a magic tissue moment, it has more to do with Jong-Goo's trials and tribulations - witness his harsh words to his daughter. So bad luck pervs, general lack of chicks in skimpy clothing and dudes showing the effects of a heavy gym program. Hey you can't always get what you want, but to be honest it wasn't needed.
As stated way above in the review you are going to have to spend some solid time with this movie and may indeed need multiple viewings to get the various nuances going down, but its well worth the investment. The Wailing is perhaps the perfect horror movie and is the first that we are putting into our new site section, the Well of Classics, so it probably doesn't need to be said full recommendation on this movie. If you watch one horror movie this year then make that movie The Wailing, this movie will have you high fiving the victims in your garage.