The Wailing (2016)
Director: Na Hong-jin
20th Century Fox
Synopsis: A mysterious, violent illness descends on a village and impacts a family, testing their spiritual limits.
Overview: Korean horror has been sitting deservedly high on its throne for decades. Fans who appreciate its elegant style eagerly anticipate each new release or return to the classics with admiration for the genre that’s well-earned. Creeping through the festival circuit this year was The Wailing, an epic story of the lengths a father will go to save the life of his daughter, and how destructive our fear of “the other” can be.
One word that always comes to mind with Korean cinema is “beauty”. The landscape is mountainous, lush and green, dotted with Hanoks, gorgeous traditional homes built to complement the surrounding area. The language itself is soft and lyrical, almost always pleasing to the ear. These settings and dynamics are part of what makes the genre so exciting: the juxtaposition is pungent, and no matter how horrifying the subject might be it always retains some of that beauty. Another strength Korean cinema has is the ability to effortlessly blend genres without creating a total mess. The Wailing is an incredible example of this. At times it’s funny, drawing laughter for melodramatic performances and quick jokes. Then it’s terrifying, using every sense imaginable to creep under the skin. Finally, it’s also terribly moving. It’s rare to laugh, cry, and scream during a film without feeling like it pandered to the audience’s emotions.
Do-won Kwak is an absolute treat as Jong-Goo, a local village policeman and father of Hyo-Jin (Hwan-hee Kim). His comedic relief early in the film is marvelous, playing a gentle mix of a bumbling ‘fraidy-cat cop and cheerful father. I loved his sweet vulnerability and commitment beyond his physical ability. The humour is ripe early on as he hears tale of a mysterious flesh-eating old Japanese man who lives in the forest. The townsfolk have all sorts of stories and rumours about him and the danger he brings to the village. These stories start out silly and small in The Wailing, but turn dangerous quickly. According to them, since he has arrived people are contracting a mysterious, grotesque illness and murdering family. When Hyo-Jin contracts the illness, Jong-Goo and his friends investigate the old man’s shack in the woods. What they find gives the film a terrifying turn and stretches the men to believe in and commit acts that would have never crossed their minds before. Eventually they must all confront their fear and their prejudice against those who are different, and some of them will lose their lives to the battle.
The family theme is strong in The Wailing. There’s a touching father-daughter dynamic that is moving and painful at times as Jong-Goo goes beyond his personal limits to save the life of his child. When it’s decided that a spirit has maybe possessed Hyo-Jin, no stone is left unturned. One of the most thrilling scenes involves a Korean exorcism. There is a bloody frenzy to it that makes it absolutely cathartic to watch. The shaman screams, dances with swords, spits blood and wails on a drum. The sound is deafening, the physical reactions intense. But when it doesn’t work, the family approaches a leader of a different faith. There are several haunting biblical parallels tucked into the film. When making a life or death decision, thrice the cock crows. There’s even a clear doubting Thomas moment at the end of the film that is, arguably, the best 10 minutes of the entire thing. As if we deserved another gift, when the movie feels like it has come to its natural emotional end, it extends itself without being wasteful in the least.
The downside? It’s long. At nearly 160 minutes it feels like a stretch to commit. Some of the best horror of this year came in tight packages less than 90 minutes, so it’s tempting to dismiss longer features. That’s why it’s great news that it’s on Netflix. It only takes one time being trapped in the theatre at something like Les Mis to think about the glorious benefit of the all-access bathroom and snacks of your own home. Jokes aside, The Wailing is a fantastic film that will hold your attention to the end. It’s one of the best horror movies of the year, and a fantastic addition to your Korean horror collection.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox