Directed by Na Hong-jin
Opens June 3
The devil is in the details, but the tragedy of Korean director Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing is that no one can identify the lord of the underworld until it’s too late. Damnation follows its own timetable. And so does this atmospheric-to-a-fault horror feature, which runs a shade over two-and-a-half hours—justifiably so, for the most part.
The setting is a rural Korean village, though the production filmed in numerous locations across the country, giving it a subtle, spooky feeling of being both everyplace and no-place. Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) is our protagonist, a portly, slapstick-prone policeman who at times suggests Fatty Arbuckle transported into the slick-noir world of Se7en. He’s primarily a voyeur for the first hour, witness to several village residents mysteriously losing their minds and their lives. But then his young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) exhibits many of the same symptoms as those victims (let’s just say she and Linda Blair would get along swimmingly) and all hell breaks loose.
Jong-gu becomes convinced it’s a case of demonic possession, and likely involves the mysterious Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) who has recently taken up residence in a nearby cabin in the woods. A creeping, amorphous sense of dread, however, is more paramount than sound and sensible plot progression. Where is it written, after all, that the whims of Lucifer follow mankind’s logic?
So we also get a member of the red-eyed undead who pops up now and again to cannibalize human flesh. We’re introduced to an exorcist (Hwang Jung-min) whose ostentatious rituals seem inextricably intertwined with his fashionista-like ego. A haunted looking young woman (Chun Woo-hee) hangs around the margins, never fully forthcoming as to whether she’s working for good or for evil. And cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (a regular collaborator of Bong Joon-ho) makes masterful use of the anamorphic widescreen frame to unite all the disparate elements, notably via some expansive landscape images that play like Ozu pillow-shots perverted by fire and brimstone.
The Wailing is a witch’s brew that trusts its ambiguities will carry the day, though the spell occasionally slips from the mesmeric into the tedious. (Try as Na might, he can’t entirely eradicate the staleness of the is-it-a-dream-or-not? fakeout.) Yet there’s real beauty and devastation in the film’s finale, as the harrowing father-daughter relationship between Jong-gu and Hyo-jin reaches its apex—one that’s quite literally sanguine and is chillingly accompanied by the got-another-one! giggling of the Good Book’s oldest foe.