The Wailing (Goksung) (Fantasia 2016) is the latest film from award-winning Korean writer/director Na Hong-jin and can bee seen at the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival in Toronto, Canada. Na’s previous films, The Chaser (Chugyeogja) (2008) and The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae) (2010) are well-received crime thrillers.
For The Wailing, the director moves from the crime thriller genre to the supernatural thriller genre with great success. A police sergeant in a rural South Korean village is investigating a series of incidents where some of the villagers come down with a mysterious ailment before going mad and attacking friends and family. Rural superstitions lay blame on the Japanese stranger who recently moved nearby and who the villagers suspect is not quite human. When the sergeant’s own daughter becomes ill, can a flamboyant shaman help cure her, or will the sergeant take matters into his own hands? The film deftly combines ghost story, exorcism, mystery, and dramatic elements, and it even throws in a little bit of zombie action. Na weaves a tale of supernatural mystery that keeps the viewer interested and guessing throughout the film’s 2 hour and 36 minute run time. The viewer never quite knows where the story will go or even what is the exact nature of the threat until the final act.
Cinematographer Hong Gyeong-Pyo brings a visual interest to the film, both when shooting the gorgeous South Korean countryside as well as the close quarters of the village. The strong emotional pull of the film is enhanced by an excellent cast, headed by Kwak Do-won and Kim Hwan Hee as the police sergeant and his daughter respectively.The Wailing is a top-notch supernatural thriller that will keep viewers guessing and engaged throughout.
Jong-Goo (Kwan Do-won) is a somewhat inept police sergeant living with his wife, young daughter (Kim Hwan Hee), and mother-in-law in a rural South Korean village. Things are quiet until the brutal murder of a local ginseng farmer and his wife by their neighbor turns out to be just the start of a spate of similar killings. Victims are stricken with a rash and a fever before eventually launching into a homicidal rage. At first, “bad mushrooms” are blamed for the outbreak of madness, but local rumors and rural superstitions start to point the finger at a Japanese stranger (Kunimura Jun) who has moved to a shack outside of town. After Jong-Goo has a vision of being attacked by a demonic figure the looks similar to the man, he begins to believe that the stranger may 1) have something to do with the outbreak and 2) may not be completely human, just as some of the villagers suspect.
When his own daughter becomes ill with symptoms similar to those of victims of the outbreak, Jong-Goo and his family call in Il-Gwang (Hwang Jung-min), a flamboyant shamen, to try and save the girl. Why is the Japanese man living in the area and what is the connection with the strange young woman Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee) who has been lurking around town? Whom can Jong-Goo trust, and will he make the right choice so he can save his daughter?
Instead of the crowded streets of Seoul that are often featured in South Korean cinema, The Wailing showcases the idyllic South Korean countryside. Cinematographer Hong Gyeong-Pyo does an excellent job highlighting the beauty of the rural setting with gorgeous wide shots of the mountains and plains. Without a doubt, the film is gorgeous to look at. When moving closer in, such as into the woods or the rocky hillside surrounding the Japanese stranger’s shack, he keeps the camera dynamic, smoothly following the action through the trees, often with crane shots that are impressive without overtly calling attention to themselves. The outdoor shots are lit exquisitely, apparently taking advantage of the nature light as it is filtered through the trees. When in the village, Hong’s camera give the viewer the sense of close comfort, almost as if one is a safe rabbit warren. This makes it all the more horrifying when the village life is disrupted by various acts of familial violence.
The Wailing can be classified as a “supernatural thriller,” but that would be oversimplifying the range of genres the film covers. Opening with the Jong-Goo helping to investigate the aftermath of a horrific double murder, it at first feels like a police procedural translated from the big city to a rural village. In spite of the bloodshed, there is still some humor, as Jong-Goo is a bit of a bumbler. As things progress, ghost story elements are introduced as the villagers’ xenophobia cast suspicion toward the Japanese stranger. Is the Japanese stranger a ghost? If he is a ghost, how can he have a physical body? Talk of ghosts and spirits gently eases into talk of possible possession, and like that, the film smoothly introduces exorcism elements. Though there are a couple of Catholic priest in the supporting cast, the exorcism duties fall to the shaman.
It is quite refreshing to see a different cultural take on the casting out of evil spirits. While the exorcism does involve some violent thrashing around, it is as far from The Exorcist (1973) as one could want. Many chickens and much dancing is involved. In the midst of all of this, there is even a little bit of zombie/reanimated corpse action. Throughout, there is a strong mystery element stringing everything together. Far from being a mishmash of elements, writer/director Na expertly blends these various sub-genres to produce a very satisfying and cohesive whole that fits together perfectly naturally, while still keeping the viewer guessing as to where it will go.
Central to the fun of watching The Wailing is the feeling that the audience has no idea where it is going. While the viewer may be able to guess individual plot points, these elements still develop in unusual ways and lead to unpredictable consequences. As the film progresses, Jong-Goo is constantly second-guessing his actions. He questions if he has done the right thing, and he waivers regarding his future course of actions. It is not always clear what the “right” choice is. Unlike many films where the audience knows what the main character should do, in The Wailing, they are just as unsure of the proper course of action as the protagonist. Jong-Goo and the viewer may think that they know who to trust at several points in the film, but they often find this trust shifting away from one party to another and back again as the story develops. Jong-Goo and the viewer are never quite sure of the major player’s allegiances and motivations until the closing scenes of the movie.
Strong performances by the central cast help bolster the emotional core of the film. Kwan Do-won does a fantastic job as police sergeant Jong-Goo. Early scenes endear him to the audience. He may be a bit of a bumbler, but he is a part of the community. The audience feels for him and wants to see him succeed. His relationship with his wife and mother-in-law may not be strong, but the audience can feel the love he has for his daughter; he would do anything for her. The chemistry between Kwan and Kim Hwan Hee as his daughter is very strong. They feel very much like a father and his pre-teen daughter. Kim does a first-rate job in a role that requires a wide range of emotions. While a different kind of possession than the Western pea-soup spitting variety, the role does involve quite a bit of emotional and physical work. The young actress is up for the task and handles it quite well. Ambiguity of intentions is an important feature for the supporting characters in The Wailing.
The role of the Japanese stranger is handled with great aplomb by veteran Japanese actor Kunimura Jun. He has a quiet strength and stoicism that is essential for that character to work. He projects an air of sympathy as well as menace depending upon what side the viewer believes he is on at any given moment. Hwang Jung-min, as Il-Gwang the shamen, also handles the ambiguity of his character quite well. At turns, the viewer can easily believe he is a legitimate holy man, a con man, or worse, depending upon the point in the story. Rounding out the enigmatic supporting players is Chun Woo-hee as Moo-myeong, the mysterious woman. Is she a harmless local eccentric, a threat, a savior, or something else? Chun’s performance help keep the viewer guessing until the final act.
Writer/director Na Hong-jin delivers a strong and captivating supernatural thriller with The Wailing. Gorgeous cinematography from Hong Gyeong-Pyo provides visual interest that also help to bolster the story. Strong performances, in particularly by Kwan Do-won and Kim Hwan Hee, give the film both the emotional anchor as well as the intentional ambiguity needed for the story to succeed. Na skillfully melds horror sub-genres without it feeling like a mishmash; instead, he presents something that feels like an organic whole. Since the viewer cannot quite pin the sub-genre down, the story is difficult to predict; the viewer is almost always surprised as to where the story goes. The results is a very satisfying supernatural mystery thriller that takes the viewer through a wide range of emotions.
While it is just past the halfway point in 2016, it is still easy to see that this is one the best genre offerings of the year. It is currently playing as part of the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. It is well worth seeking out.
The Wailing (4.8 / 5)