THE WAILING is a new supernatural mystery thriller written and directed by South Korean genre filmmaker Hong-jin Na. The story follows Jong-Goo (Do-won Kwak), a chubby police sergeant investigating a string of gruesome murders in his small village of Gokseong. The murders appear to stem from a strange virus that causes those infected to go crazy and brutally kill those nearest them; usually their friends and family. Scared and confused, the villagers attach their blame to a newcomer to the town: a Japanese monk (Jun Kinemura) living in the mountains, who they fear is a bloodsucking ghost that has cursed their village.
The un-superstitious Jong-Goo is sceptical of the townsfolks’ supernatural accusations, and decides instead to investigate the possibility of hallucinogenic mushrooms as the cause for the grisly crimes. These bumbling investigations, made in the company of Jong-Goo’s equally oblivious deputy, inject the opening portion of the film with a surprising amount of humour. However, when Jong-Goo is tormented by vivid dreams of being stalked by the red eyed and half-naked form of the Japanese monk, the tone quickly becomes more sinister. The creepy atmosphere is further enhanced when a mysterious young woman dressed in white tells Jong-Goo that she saw the monk at the scene of a recent murder.
However, it is only when Jong-Goo’s own daughter Hyo-jin starts to exhibit the plague-like symptoms associated with the virus that he finally begins to suspect the monk. Jong-Goo decides to take the law into his own hands and confronts the monk, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t leave town. When this measure proves futile, the desperate Jong-Goo employs a local shaman to perform a ritual to kill the Japanese stranger in an attempt to cure his daughter. The subsequent ritual represents a tense and gripping set piece. Whilst the eerie score builds, Hong-Jin Na expertly cuts between the energetic ceremony of the shaman, the monk’s own mountain ritual and the apparent effect it is having on Hyo-jin, who is writhing and screaming in agony. What results is a sequence which, though lengthy, builds to a crescendo of anticipation that is almost unbearable.
The performances in the film are universally brilliant. Two of the particular standouts are Do-won Kwak and Hwan-hee, whose intense and magnetic portrayals as the tormented father and the infected daughter provide the story with heart and credibility. The film also boasts amazing visuals. Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, who also shot the film SNOWPIERCER, employs dynamic camerawork and stunning wide angles that beautifully portray the films mountain setting. These exquisite shots capture the natural beauty of the misty cliff peaks and make the rural village they surround appear perilously cut off from civilization.
Hong-jin Na has gained a reputation for making ultra-violent genre films (see THE CHASER and THE YELLOW SEA) and THE WAILING also has its moments of bloodshed. However it is not the gore but the unsettling atmosphere that gifts this film with its scariest moments. The creepy, sparingly employed score enables the intrigue and fear to build gradually, and despite the film’s considerable runtime (just over two and a half hours) it is well paced, with the horror seeping in almost insidiously.
However THE WAILING’S greatest strength is its ambiguity. The audience, much like the film’s characters, do not know who to trust. The Japanese monk, the shaman and the angelic-like white woman all at some point become suspects. It is unclear which or any of the three are charlatans, and which potentially possess true unworldly power. As such, Hong-Jin Na constructs a film partly rooted in the real world, and yet submerged in the supernatural; managing to combine the ghostly fear of a horror with the mystery of a “whodunit”.
Without a solid foundation in which to place their trust, the audience is rendered uncertain, unsettled and constantly gripped right up to the film’s tense and nail biting finale. THE WAILING is Hong-jin Na’s best film yet, and provides evidence that along with directors such as Kim-ji Woon, Bong-Joon Ho and Park Chan Wook, he can be counted amongst the finest Korean auteurs working today.