Na Hong-jin’s 2016 Horror, The Wailing, is an unsettling film which not only combines the possession and zombie genres, but does so in a unique way that western entries into the genres simply cannot complete with.
The film’s central premise is a simple one. In the small Korean village of Gokseong, people with a mysterious rash are violently murdering their families before falling into a vegetative state and dying in horrendously violent spasms. Is it an illness, witchcraft, or simply mass hysteria running rampant through a close knit rural community? The film keeps you guessing for the majority of its 156 minutes.
Performances from the central cast are strong. Kwak Do-won is superb as a chickenshit policeman who loves his family. His comedy chops deserve special praise here, as he manages to deliver laughs alongside moments of tension. I’m not a Korean cinema aficionado by any means, and am unaware of his previous work, but if he’s not done comedy before then it’s a huge waste of a very talented actor. Hwang Jung-min, apparently one of the highest grossing actors in South Korea, earns his corn in this movie too. He has a physicality which lends itself to the part of the Shaman, a man called in to save Jog-goo’s daughter Hyo-jin. He is absolutely believable as a Shaman, throwing himself into the rituals with true gusto. Speaking of Hyo-jin, the actress behind the unfortunate policeman’s daughter, Kim Hwan-hee has a real future in the acting business. She has a few key scenes in the movie that really show her off as a character actor, she has that 1000 yard stare down to a fine art for sure, but was equally impressive, and heart meltingly cute in her earlier scenes alongside her on-screen father Do-won. There was tenderness between the two that is seldom seen in parent/child moments on screen. Jun Kunimura, who has had bit parts in Hollywood as well as his native Japan in movies such as Kill Bill vol.1 and Ichi the Killer, gets a deserved centre stage from which he can shine as the Japanese stranger. Maybe it was the CG eyes, maybe his body language, but his turn as a blood sucking “ghost” in Jog-goo’s nightmares was truly chilling.
Na Hong-jin directs expertly, developing atmosphere and tension throughout what is a very watchable 2 ½ hour feature. Often a film of this length can suffer from occasional flab, but the pacing of the film is such that it never feels like you’re having your time wasted. His film isn’t tight by any means, but I wouldn’t want to see much, if any, of the fat trimmed as it all adds wonderful flavour to the meal.
The Wailing’s cinematographer, Hong Kyung-pyo, does excellent work on this movie. His shots are natural and capture every moment with a real sense of voyeurism. The lighting is superbly utilised, creating a real oppressive feel during the many rainstorms, and beautifully capturing the final meeting between Jog-goo and Chun Woo-hee’s mysterious nameless woman (Moo-myung, the characters credited name translates to “Nameless Woman”, a nice touch). Speaking of that final meeting, the use of the Cockerel crowing 3 times evoked memories of the betrayal of Christ for me. Maybe a stretch, but since the Church is involved (I suspect Catholic, but it’s never fully clarified) it feels appropriate to mention it.
Now we reach a sensitive area which must be discussed, and more than likely with more sensitivity and knowledge than I can show it on the page. This movie trades on xenophobia to an extent, somewhat justified but xenophobia none the less. The fact is, Japan and Korea have history, and it’s not pleasant reading. During the second world war it’s estimated that Japan forced around 200,000 women into sex slavery. A great number were Korean nationals although this number also included Australian, Chinese, Philippino and Dutch women. They were kidnapped from their homes and shipped off so that Japanese personnel could have their way with them.
It’s a subject which comes up often in the news and one that has caused a certain level of animosity and distrust between the peninsula and Island nations. In fact Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, actually denied it had happened when he spoke on the matter in 2007, and It wasn’t until 2015 that Japan officially recognised and apologised for their actions and agreed to pay 1 Billion Yen into a fund that would help support survivors of that dark passage in history. As you can imagine, the fact that the apology came so late has meant that ill feeling has festered and presented itself in manners such as we see in this movie. The Japanese Stranger is literally depicted as a foreign devil,
(or to be more specific, an Oni) although that’s the final payoff in a movie that keeps you so unbalanced that you honestly can’t tell who to root for until it’s almost all said and done.
The strength of this movie is that it keeps you guessing right up until those final few minutes, never quite confirming or ruling out our suspicions about multiple characters motivations until the last possible moment. Even when you think you know what’s happening there’s inevitably another twist waiting for you around the next corner, but at no time do you ever feel like these are twists for twists sake.
When I undertook to watch this film I didn’t expect it to be anything massively ambitious or impressive honestly. I didn’t think it would be bad by any means, but it had escaped mainstream attention and so my expectations automatically lowered themselves. What I was left with was a feeling of 2 ½ hours very well spent, a new, deep appreciation for Korean cinema (to my shame Train to Busan is STILL on my watch list) and most importantly the understanding that sometimes the best horror experiences are those that never get the fanfare or cinema screen playtime that they deserved.
I look forward to Mr Hong-jin’s next project, whatever that might be.