Director Na Hong-jin makes his first foray into horror in this year’s genre masterpiece The Wailing, a sprawling, quiet monster of a film that effectively marries supernatural terror and mystery in an operatic journey culminating in one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking final acts I’ve witnessed in recent memory.

The film wastes no time in thrusting us into a situation that is less whodunit and more “WTF, why?” A rural village in South Korea is plagued by a inexplicable rash of brutal family murders with seemingly no motive, paired with a mysterious illness. The primary suspect? A middle-aged Japanese stranger who has begun living deep in a nearby valley, in a shack rumoured to hold some very dark secrets.

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Happy families are never a good sign in horror.

The first half of the film is punctuated by incisive stabs of dark humour, most often aimed squarely at our protagonist, Jong-goo (a fantastic performance by Kwak Do-wan), the bumbling police officer who increasingly involves himself in the mystery of the murders and the strange man (Jun Kunimura), and whose adorable daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) seems poised to be the next victim. One of my favourite aspects of South Korean cinema is the genre-bending nature of its best films – the humour in the early acts of The Wailing hits hard and sharp, but as the film progresses it seamlessly transitions into pure suspense, and then ramps up into unadulterated terror that had me squirming in my seat. Although the film clocks in at a hefty 156 minutes, it never left me bored or wanting. Emotionally, the film pulls you in so many directions (and often with such intensity) that I felt exhausted afterward, but in the pleasant way that you feel after returning home from an interesting vacation. Na’s flair for striking mises-en-scène has kept numerous scenes echoing in my head, even after a night of uneasy sleep.

I had that same look during many of the scenes. Slightly less blood, though.

The Wailing is a slow burn but evenly-paced. Na gradually rachets up the tension until all hell breaks loose during the final insane 20 minutes. The film score is perfect. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo’s photography makes ample use of natural light as well as natural landscape, which helps to underscore the relative isolation of the small village. The performances are highly compelling and effective, despite some minor script missteps here and there in terms of a character’s decision-making (as well as one fairly gaping plot hole.) Kwak is the sympathetic, everyman heart of the film – his performance is nuanced and responsive enough to maintain my emotional investment throughout the lengthy run-time. Jun Kunimura turns in an excellent and chilling performance as the antagonist. Other performances of note include Chun Woo-hee, whose otherworldliness is pitch perfect for her role as The Woman of No-name. As the hired shaman, Hwang Jung-min steals every scene he is in, bringing to the film a spark of charisma that vacillates easily between understated and bombastic. Kim Hwan-hee as Jong-goo’s precocious daughter Hyo-jin is The Wailing’s secret weapon, and she displays remarkable range and talent not always found in child actors.

Ain’t no party like an exorcist party, cos an exorcist party don’t stop.

Lingering echoes of the colonial history between Korea and Japan permeate the film. The horrific murders are linked to the coming of a Japanese stranger. At one point, reference is made to a rumour about the Japanese man raping a Korean woman, a story decision that cannot be examined outside of the ongoing demands for the Japanese government to apologize for the institutionalized sexual assault that its soldiers inflicted upon so-called ‘comfort women‘ (Asian girls and women forced or coerced into sexual slavery) during World War II. (For a mind-blowingly, heart-wrenchingly excellent documentary about these women, try to track down The Apology. It is truly a masterful piece of documentary film-making.) I look forward to reading academic papers written about the sociopolitical aspects of The Wailing, written by scholars more well-versed than I in the historic and current relationship between the two countries. Featuring a Catholic deacon as well as traditional shamanism, the film also nods toward the influence of Western culture and missionaries.

The Wailing contains enough ambiguity, uncertainty, and metaphorical richness to sustain a lively conversation over drinks after viewing, which makes it my favourite kind of film.

Score: 9.5 out of 10 rakes to the head.

Bonus points:

  • The original title, Gokseong, is also the name of the village in which it was filmed.
  • The relationship between Sergeant Jong-goo and his partner is great – they have chemistry and play off of each other very well, particularly in the hilarious night-time scene in the station when they are frightened by a nocturnal visitor, and the scene in the truck immediately after their devastating first visit to the valley.
  • There were so many small but uproarious moments of humour, like the subtle hilarity of the shaman ditching his ceremonial robes for a Nike jumper and track pants, or Jong-Woo’s entire relationship with his wife throughout the first hour of the film.
  • The lack of gun violence in this film was as striking as it was refreshing. At no point did any character empty a mag into anyone (or anything) else. Especially remarkable as two significant characters were police officers.
  • This film has hands-down the best exorcism sequence I have ever seen, and I am generally averse to exorcism scenes. I was riveted.
  • The film took six years to make, and it was well worth it.