With its gallows humour, bursts of bloody violence, and a title that’s both noun and pun (the original South Korean title, ‘Gokseong’, is the name of this film’s town setting but also translates as ‘wailing’), director Na Hong-jin’s third feature is a shocking, beautifully abstract and ultimately haunting genre-blitzer. Constructing its mystery steadily and with delicate style (kudos to DP Hong Kyung Pyo), it’s at once a horror story about human fallibility and a slapstick zombie-ghost-infection thriller that echoes the likes of The Exorcist but always feels wholly original.
Inspired by Hong-jin’s own philosophical searchings in a period when a number of his friends suddenly died, The Wailing despatches bumbling local officer Jong-goo (Do Won Kwak) to the scene of a horrific crime in which a man butchered his entire family. Stranger still, he’s riddled with boils. While the media point to mushroom poisoning as the cause of the man’s mania, rumours begin circulating of a Japanese man who’s been spotted in the woods devouring wildlife and attacking anybody who strays into his vicinity.
Pinballing from one murder scene to another, in which all the assailants are infected with a grim virus, Do Won Kwak is endearing as the ham-fisted officer totally out of his depth. Much of the film’s ‘wailing’ comes from him as he spends its first half comically attacked (and reacting as histrionically as a 1920s silent movie actress) or butting heads with everybody from his co-workers to his young daughter Hyo-jin. It’s only when Hyo-jin begins to show signs of infection that The Wailing’s palette darkens.
Jong-goo’s comedic breakdowns become coloured with desperation and as he seeks out the Japanese man in the woods (played by the fantastic Jun Kunimura of The Audition and Kill Bill), Hong-jin’s film plunges its characters deeper into the depths of hell. Boasting a howling shamanic exorcism sequence to rival that most famous cinematic possession sequence for feral power, The Wailing’s undercurrent of religiosity is poetically handled, not least with the appearance of the mysterious Woman Of No Name (Woo-hee Chun).
With its seductive visuals and slowly unwinding horror, The Wailing transcends genre, emerging as a harrowing fable with a formidable ability to scratch under the skin. Few recent horrors have come close to matching its quiet terror, and when its crackers plot (over two-and-a-half hours in the making) finally comes to a boil, it scalds like hellfire.
This review was originally published in Horrorville Issue #2.