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The Wailing is the most unsettling Korean horror film in years, but it offers more chills than answers

Na Hong-jin's first film in six years serves up a glimpse of intense evil over a disturbing clash of cultures.

In the new Korean horror film Gokseong (The Wailing), a ghost, a demon, a shaman, and a zombie-like viral infection have invaded a remote mountain village. But none of those things is the truly scary part.

Rating


3.5

Writer-director Na Hong-jin made an international splash in 2008 with his feature debut The Chaser, which he followed up in 2010 with The Yellow Sea; both films are dark thrillers involving lone, lost men caught up in events far beyond their control.

And on the surface, The Wailing — his third film — offers more of the same. Its Korean-language title refers to the name of the remote, isolated mountain region at the center of the plot, while its English-language title has far more to do with the biblical plague–esque wave of violence, death, and sickness that seems to strike the town out of nowhere.

A tense blend of genres, The Wailing succeeds at combining a mood of deep unease with visceral gore, buddy cop comedy, and a hallucinogenic mix of horror tropes — a recipe that yields, among other things, an atypical exorcism helmed by an intense Korean shaman. The film was a success at Cannes last month, and hype has been building ever since.

But there’s a lot happening in The Wailing — and despite its stylish ambiguity, the masterful direction, and the meaningless and random violence that gives this film its dark core, it never fully escapes the weeds of its own swamp of misery.

Here’s what’s good, bad, and weird about The Wailing.

Good: the overwhelming sense of tonal dread and ambiguity, aided by some really beautiful scenery

Kwak Do-won in The Wailing.
Well Go USA

The Wailing starts off in a rash of madness and stays that way. At its center is the beleaguered police sergeant Jong-Goo, played with a brilliant mix of exhaustion, indecisiveness, and fear by Kwak Do-won. Your typical muddling, frequently befuddled cop, Jong-Goo is baffled along with the rest of Gokseong’s local police force by the onset of a series of horrifically violent and inexplicable murders.

The killers all seem to suffer from the same zombie-like symptoms — they appear crazed and inhuman and are trying to eat the flesh of the living — as well as a skin rash and boils. Local town gossip fingers a newcomer as being somehow responsible for causing the affliction, a mysterious Japanese man who lives deep within the forested mountainside and is only known to the town’s residents as "the Jap."

At first, Jong-Goo dismisses the rumors about this man and his evil supernatural powers as sheer ignorance. But as the bodies pile up and Jong-Goo’s own daughter is affected by the strange curse, developing the strange rash along with dark, violent desires, his reticence gives way to suspicion and desperation.

Na’s great gift as a director is his clear ability to meld different tonal moments without losing the larger sense of dread that hangs over his film. As Jong-Goo, Kwak swings from moments of comical incompetence as the fuddy-duddy local policeman to moments of barely concealed self-loathing to moments of absolute horror and rage as his distrust of the Japanese stranger and his fear for his daughter grows. Through each of these stark tonal shifts, the sense of horror and urgency surrounding the unknown curse that has come to his town is palpable.

There’s a pervasive hush and sense of stillness that lingers over the region of Gokseong, and scenes of brazen, crazed madness are often preceded by shots of tranquil mountain vistas whose lush, thickly forested landscapes increasingly feel smothering and secretive. This is a film as beautiful as it is gory, as painstakingly scenic as it is committed to stark visual interplays between darkness and light.

All the while, the story of Gokseong unfolds in fits and starts, each puzzle piece more confusing than the last. Are the residents of the town being systematically poisoned with a drug that causes them to become frenzied, savage killers? Are they being cursed? Or is it both, and for what reason? Na’s writing layers tension upon tension, particularly through the escalating paranoia that each of the townspeople comes to feel for any and all outsiders.

However, answers are much harder to find in this film than accusations. Horror fans wanting a plot whose ending dovetails nicely with all the elements that preceded it may wind up feeling frustrated, though many more may be drawn into the heart of its darkness: the conviction that terror has come to this town and there is no escape to be had.

Bad: the striking xenophobia

Jun Kunimura in The Wailing.
Well Go USA

The plot of The Wailing centers heavily on Jong-Goo's increased fixation with the Japanese man, played with a perfect balance of pathos and sinister ambivalence by renowned Japanese actor Jun Kunimura (Audition). Na has gone on record that "xenophobia has nothing to do with" his choice to cast a Japanese actor in the role of the outsider, and that his goal was to show the irrational but intense fear that can spring from the inability to communicate with the person you fear.

But although numerous characters warn Jong-Goo away from his obsession with the stranger, the plot hurtles along toward a conclusion that can be read as simultaneously bearing out all of Jong-Goo's fears and validating the Japanese stranger’s choice to shut himself away from his Korean neighbors to begin with.

Korea and Japan share centuries of historic distrust and ongoing political tensions, as well as deep resentment over the Japanese colonization of Korea in the early 20th century and its still-controversial practice of forcing many Korean citizens into sex slavery to serve as "comfort women." In recent years, major tensions have flared over a chain of disputed islands in the South China Sea, and although the two countries have recently stated they have restored relations, both Korea and Japan are known for their xenophobic tendencies, particularly with regard to each other.

The Wailing’s depiction of its villagers’ distrust of the lone Japanese character isn’t particularly subtle. And given how well The Wailing has done at the box office in its home country, it evidently speaks to plenty of Koreans.

Threaded between The Wailing’s layers of isolation is the worry that everything you’ve been taught to fear about strangers and outsiders is justified. Beneath the many unanswered questions it leaves us with in its black-as-pitch conclusion is the cloaked message that failure to be suspicious of the Other may be your undoing, and that ultimately, communication with those you fear may be the last thing you want.

This isn’t exactly a subversive narrative, and although The Wailing offers up plenty of thematic intricacies, it may not be enough to balance out the unsettling portrayal of the film’s lone Japanese character.

Weird: the mix of Catholicism, Korean shamanism, and the occult

A mysterious shaman conducts a traditional exorcism in The Wailing.

The Wailing’s centerpiece is a long sequence featuring a powerful shamanic ritual, an attempt to exorcise the demon believed to be possessing Jong-Goo’s daughter. This rite comes after Jong-Goo’s attempts to summon the help of a reluctant deacon (a priest in training), and before a final visit to the town’s church leads a disbelieving priest to reject Jong-Goo’s claims that the Japanese stranger has unleashed evil upon the town. "The church can’t help you," the priest says, before sending Jong-Goo on his way — a fateful decision that leads in part to the film’s utterly mad final act.

But if the church can’t help, then the shaman — another mysterious out-of-towner, whom Jong-Goo’s family seeks out to help save his daughter — only makes things worse with his exhausting exorcism rite. Filmed with hypnotic, frenzied intensity, the shaman’s ritual is every bit as bloody and terrifying as the gory acts that have led to it. The ritual’s eventual disruption at the hands of a distraught Jong-Goo feels as wrong as the ritual itself; it is in this moment we begin to feel that everyone in this story is totally lost, and that Gokseong truly is under the sway of occult supernatural forces beyond anyone’s control.

Ultimately, Na’s superb direction, sleek cinematography, and sense of visuals only make the occult aspects of this film feel more raw — but they also leave us with no firm grasp on what to believe. The Wailing hedges its bets as to what kind of devil, ghost, or zombie waits for us in the shadows, and ultimately seems to throw up its hands and declare, "Maybe all of them?" But if that’s the case, then the desperately needed synthesis of cultural unification is nowhere to be found; the shaman and the priest never join forces, and the Korean policeman and the Japanese stranger never actually really communicate with one another.

At one point in The Wailing’s first act, a character is inexplicably struck by lightning. By the time the film is over, this moment seems like a kindness relative to the violence the rest of the town has experienced. So if The Wailing is a kind of Old Testament fable, then it may be less about Job’s personal tragedy and more about the tower of Babel: a chaos ordered by the divine to test the mettle of men.

However, in this case it seems that whichever god is running the show is perhaps too impatient to let men sort things out for themselves, and is ultimately content to stand back and let the devil have his way with the lot.

The Wailing is in theaters nationwide.

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