A stranger arrives in a little village and soon after a mysterious sickness starts spreading. A policeman is drawn into the incident and is forced to solve the mystery in order to save his daughter.
At last! I can pour forth all of my many thoughts on last year’s amazing Korean import, The Wailing. If you’ll recall, I placed this film in my Top 15 Horror Feature Films for 2016 (here’s a link to that article) and The Wailing found itself in the mighty fine spot of #9. Not too shabby.
It somehow got lost in the mix, but I still wanted to offer a full review, thus I took in a second screening as a refresher. In most things it lived up to my original enjoyment and in so many others, it surpassed that first-time love. Besides, after all of my praise, my husband simply had to take his first gander!
The small village of Goksung (the film’s original Korean title) is forever changed when a loner Japanese immigrant (played by Kill Bill’s Jun Kunimura) takes up residence in a cabin in the woods – just on the outskirts of town. Regular people begin to exhibit strange (sometimes homicidal behavior) and develop terrible boils over large patches of infected skin. A couple of lax and inefficient police officers – most importantly, Jong-Goo (Do-wan Kwak) – begin to follow the clues and eventually make some startling (possibly supernatural) discoveries about this new addition to their community. When Jong-Goo’s young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) falls ill with the same strange sickness, a shaman (Il-Gwang) is called in and the investigation into this spreading disease and unease – becomes personal for Jong-Goo.
The film is quite an undertaking at 2 hours 36 minutes. But there’s never a lull in the story. It’s by no means boring and it needs this extended running time to achieve all of the glorious things it does. And there are a lot of them.
For starters, it’s so beautifully shot. The misty mountain locations are breathtaking and although the community where the story takes place is more than just a little village (it has a large, modern hospital and decent-sized downtown) it feels terribly isolated and rural. This valley village is all on its own, as things quickly turn frightening. And based on what the mysterious Japanese man seems to have in mind – being far away from outside influence is perfect.
The make-up work is nicely done. From the frightening faces of the crazy townsfolk to the rotting bodies of those gone missing, it’s all top-notch work. But nothing is as creepy as the film’s final reveal. A make-up achievement of course, but when paired with that perfectly inspired and executed reveal – you’ll fall in love.
A couple of scenes deserve high praise. Following a violent visit to the old Japanese man’s home, Jong-Goo and his cohorts drive into the valley on a rain-soaked highway and something hits their truck. They speed out of control – swerving crazily down the slick hill. When they come to a stop, they investigate the scene. The shot compositions here – namely the placement of the group of men in the frame – is exquisite. Not that everything else in the film is “blah” – far from it – but this sequence really stood out as masterful.
And as far as tension, one of the final moments has a confused and emotionally torn Jong-Goo in a conversation with the mysterious lady in white (Woo-hee Chun). There’s something to do with a nearby rooster’s “cock-a-doodle-do” and the way this is cut with another climactic moment – will leave you with goosebumps and a quickened heart-beat. The audience is so easily played by the filmmakers all throughout, but the beautifully quiet suspense of this climax is one for the books.
The film is highly emotional. The bond between father and daughter is the centerpiece to the story, much like the incredible Train to Busan (my #4 horror film from last year). And both films take the opportunity at their respective endings, to use a flashback technique. While I complained a great deal about that particular scene in Train to Busan – the choice to employ this tool in The Wailing was a sound one.
But even with all of the darkness and high drama, the film also has a sense of humor. Early on, Jong-Goo and his partner are never far from being portrayed as bumbling fools; almost like keystone cops. And the same heartfelt and emotional grunts, groans and wheezes let out by Do-wan Kwak in the film’s more serious moments – are simply comical and goofy in the earlier scenes.
On that note, performances from everyone are rock solid. But Do-wan Kwak and his on-screen daughter Kim Hwan-hee steal the show. There’s a real chemistry between the two actors, both in their early good-times bonding over a cold drink – to the emotionally heavy moments when they’re in the thick of danger. Their constant mutual crying will leave your chin quivering and the scene in the hospital where Jong-Goo asks Hyo-jin repeatedly, “Are you okay?” will most likely destroy you. It did me.
The film’s ending may leave you with some questions, but my second viewing actually answered additional queries. But there’s still one which lingers – even after a second go at it – a potential plot-hole centering on some locusts. Or maybe I’m just reading it wrong.
The Wailing pretty much has it all – you’ve got some sort of voo-doo-esque rituals going on (straight out of Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow), the possession and exorcism antics of The Exorcist and even a little zombie action. But the heart belongs to a powerful father/daughter team (both the actors and the characters).
Gorgeously filmed, with perfect performances, a welcome (and surprising) sense of humor and enough frights and emotional intensity to give you hives (don’t worry, I’m sure you’re okay) The Wailing is a remarkable winner all around.
And if you need a recommendation beyond my 5-star score, I’ll certainly be adding this one to our permanent collection.
The Wailing is now available on DVD/Bluray, as well as VOD.