"When the demon is snared, the cock will crow three times. Don’t go home until then or you and your family will all die..."
A small, rural Korean community is rocked by an increasing number of seemingly inexplicable, hugely violent murders. The alleged perpetrators all appear to have contracted a disease causing severe rashes on the skin, changing their personalities to ravingly psychotic and abusively violent, each subsequently killing a member of their family and even, in some cases, resulting in them ultimately hanging themselves.
As the town’s police force – including detective Jong-goo (Kwon Do-won) – begin an investigation with no real clue of how to proceed in a case such as this, rumours start to grow among town locals that the terrible incidents are in fact being caused by a ghost/demon masquerading as an elderly Japanese man (Jun Kunimura). Jong-goo initially disregards such claims out of hand, convinced they are simply wild, paranoid delusions.
However, when his young daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) suddenly turns violent and starts to suffer from a skin rash, Jong-goo realises the clock is ticking to determine whether this mysterious man really is involved and to stop him at all cost from hurting her, if he is...
Gentle music heralds the opening scene of ‘The Wailing’ showing the aforementioned Japanese man fishing at a lakeside idyll, threading live worms onto bait hooks and casting his line to catch whichever creature is unfortunate enough to be drawn to his snare. Though we’re as yet unaware, this first small dialogue-free scene foreshadows a later conversation between Jong-goo and the shaman he enlists to expel the demonic presence possessing his daughter and bring an end to the alleged ghost: Jong-goo states that he cannot understand why such terrible things are happening to wholly innocent Hyo-jin, to which the shaman replies that the demon is simply fishing, not knowing nor caring who specifically will take the bait. An early example, in hindsight, of how subtly layered and perfectly crafted ‘The Wailing’ really is. Other similarly, beautifully subtle, dialogue-free foreshadowings of future plot points/devices occur throughout ‘The Wailing’ – a brief visual focus on strange, withered foliage hanging outside victims’ homes; Hyo-jin’s sudden tendency to ravenously gulp down vast quantities of food at breakneck speed while her family look on open-mouthed with shock and downright incredulity; etc – ensuring that when the time comes for their importance to proceedings to be revealed viewers are already familiar with their inclusion without the need for clunky exposition, allowing the flow of the narrative to carry through unabated with no jarring break in pace, in the process.
And speaking of pace:
Those who have seen any of Na Hong-jin’s earlier films – The Chaser and The Yellow Sea – will be fully aware of the sheer intensity of the combination of his films’ narrative layers, fast-pacing and striking visual editing. For me personally, ‘The Yellow Sea’ especially left me reeling (in a good way) to the extent that I almost needed to sit down in a darkened room to recover and get my breath back from spending two hours in a darkened room watching such perfectly constant pulse-pounding action on a cinema screen. The same goes for ‘The Wailing’ and while, as already stated, the film begins in a very gentle manner, the intensity within the story can be felt building almost from that very point on as the police begin their investigation – tension layering upon tension as the narrative begins to unfold. As Hyo-jin begins to show aggressive changes in her personality, the narrative pacing kicks up a further notch ultimately reaching a frenetic crescendo – as the shaman undertakes a dangerous ritual to supposedly destroy the ghost/demon – that will at once leave viewers utterly breathless and on the absolute edge of their seats. Even after that point, though the pacing eases, the narrative tension continues to build to palpable levels and beyond and by the time Jong-goo is faced with trying to figure out which of two individuals is lying to him and which is telling the truth, viewers will be able to fully understand how frayed the character really is in having to make a choice of trust that could either save or endanger his family, depending on which side his allegiance ultimately falls.
Na Hong-jin wrote ‘The Wailing’ as well as directing, and his creation of the three characters Jong-goo mainly comes into contact with in relation to the horrific murders and madness is as close to perfect as you could ask: The seemingly stern, almost non-verbal Japanese man whose prolonged poker-faced stares could equally be the incredulous confusion of an innocent foreigner persecuted or a window into the dark mind of the personification of evil; the mysterious young woman, Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee), who moves from throwing stones at Jong-goo to get his attention to randomly appearing near crime scenes with far more knowledge of events than one would expect from an innocent; and the outspoken, over-confident – verging on pompous – shaman (Hwang Jung-min) whose aborted ritual appears to make Hyo-jin worse rather than better; each has an odd, sometimes quirky, sometimes jarring aspect to their personality that raises questions as to whether they really are who they claim and appear to be, ensuring that, like Jong-goo, viewers will repeatedly reassess what their true involvement in the worsening situation is.
There are a number of clues to the true state of play in relation to these mysterious characters throughout ‘The Wailing’ but each instance could be taken in two ways – one implying good, the other pointing to evil – and, as such, the final (again perfectly understated) reveal is wholly satisfying, even if it (briefly) occurred to some viewers at an earlier stage.
The decision to bring traditional Eastern religion (Shamanism); international religion (Christianity); and secularism, if you will (modern medicine and indeed scientific-based investigation) together into one narrative is also an inspired move – the contrasting of their approaches, or lack thereof, to the horrific incidents providing an extra thought-provoking layer to an already beautifully intricate story, perhaps even making a statement on the idea of the fight of good against evil as a whole.
As a final point, while each and every performance in ‘The Wailing’ is exemplary (not necessarily that much of a surprise considering the calibre of the cast), it is 14-year-old Kim Hwan-hee in the role of Hyo-jin who will take your breath away. Much has been said over the years about the sheer talent of young actors and actresses in Korean cinema and Kim Hwan-hee’s superb performance underlines the truth of those statements, to the nth degree. Her move from sweet, lovable, innocent child to aggressive, foul-mouth and murderous soul possessed is frankly incredible and, personally speaking, it was her performance far more than any other that stayed with me long after the credits rolled.
‘The Wailing’ takes director Na Hong-jin’s almost trademark intricate, pulse-pounding narrative intensity and ramps it up yet further with palpable character fear, paranoia and desperation. Thriller by name, utterly thrilling in nature, this darkly violent, three-pronged horror ‘whodunit’ is a worthy successor to ‘The Chaser’ and ‘The Yellow Sea’.
‘The Wailing’ will be released in UK cinemas on 25 November 2016.
‘The Wailing’ (곡성) / 2016 / directed by Na Hong-jin