Hong-jin Ha’s two incredible crime flicks, The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010), that came before The Wailing prove that this writer and director can deliver the goods, but can his foray into horror be too much for him?
After a strange Japanese visitor arrives in a little village up in the mountains of South Korea, a mysterious sickness starts to spread causing members of the community to seemingly go crazy, brutally killing those around them and in some cases, themselves. This bizarre string of murders leaves policeman Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) suspicious of their true origin but after discovering his young daughter has contracted the strange sickness, his investigation sends him on a rather intriguing trail of supernatural circumstances.
Running at an epic 156 minutes, the film treads a lot of ground as it meanders from nail-bitting confrontations to sharply humours conversations. The supernatural elements begin to slowly soak their way through the whodunit fabric of the film and the familiar tropes found in traditional horrors but are instead incubated letting the horror unfold true to the situation the characters find themselves in.
Na builds tension slowly with a unique sense of fear, designed to match the mysterious spreading plague, something that you rarely get from many Hollywood horror movies. In particular, a little over halfway through the movie, a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) performs an incredibly arresting exorcism ritual. Your eyes and ears will be transfixed as it unfolds, commanded by thundering drums and clashing gongs.
But these methodically crafted scenes, although shot and play out wonderfully, feel like they don’t to amount to very much in the overall picture of The Wailing. As great as some of these moments are; the frightening discovery at Japanese man’s home is a heart-pounding highlight, as are the dark dreams that plague Jong-goo, they end up feeling disjointed in the over structure of the film. One particularly jarring scene involved a zombie type monster attacking Jong-goo and his peers, it feels somewhat shoehorned in and was rather comical in execution.
As the runtime grew the plot lines finally begin to converge but the logic begins to wain. The uncertainty and doubt experienced by the protagonist was equally shared with myself, it becomes unclear about what it is we’re actually supposed to be afraid of. By the end, the big reveal feels somewhat watered down.
So much of the film relies on it’s protagonists discovering an explanation to the terror that’s cursed the town and it’s inhabitants but Na seems to veer off course in the final act, dropping the emotional development in exchange for an allegory in the dangers of pointing fingers. Although spectacular in design, I can’t help but feel there was a missed opportunity to elevate this modern day folktale from a modest supernatural thriller to a real horror masterpiece.