Movie Review : The Wailing (2016)
* a suggestion from Brian Evenson *
The oldest and most hackneyed horror movie premise is : a stranger arrives in a remote village, weird things start happening and townsfolk grow increasingly restless. I've seen it a thousand times and cannot imagine a spin off that idea which would actually interest me. Korean film director Hong-jin Na seemingly heard my dare through the "brosmos" in 2016 and decided to take me up on it, so he made The Wailing, an obscenely long, subtle and cerebral horror movie about a weird plague unleashed on a remote village soon after the arrival of a mysterious stranger. And you know what? It's pretty great. Perhaps it's a little too contemplative to be my film of the year, but it's genuinely eerie.
The Wailing is the story of a police officer named Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) investing the outbreak of a mysterious disease causing its victims a rash and, inconveniently enough, spells of murderous rage. He is soon tipped on a suspicious Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) who recently moved on the outskirts of town by a young woman (Woo-hee Chun), which is corroborated by another witness who saw the man wandering naked in the forest and eating a freshly killed deer with his teeth. The case starts trickling into Jong-goo's life when he finds one of his daughter's shoes at the Japanese man's house and she begins to suffer the symptoms of the inexplicable disease. Jong-goo himself starts being affected by potent night terrors. What the fuck is going on, exactly? The Wailing blissfully dances around that question like a featherweight boxer for two hours and a half.
So, The Wailing is basically a zombie movie stripped of any sense of urgency. Since the cause of infection is never really revealed and that people suffering the disease tend to violently murder everyone they come up in contact with, survival is not the main concern here. The Wailing is asking more philosophical questions like: is the outbreak a disease or a curse? Is this natural or are we suffering some sort of cosmic retribution? Hong-jin Na, who wrote AND directed The Wailing, craftily blurs the line between the two explanations. Jong-goo becomes increasingly terrified that his daughter is under a supernatural spell, but cannot commit to either conventional medicine or shamanistic rituals in order to provide her help. When conventional medicine takes too long to heal her, he turns to a Shaman and when the Shaman's ritual goes into uncharted territory, he turns back to conventional medicine. Jong-goo cannot accept his own powerlessness over his daughter's fate, which turns out to be crucial not only for him, but for everybody involved.
But I digress slightly here. What The Wailing is really about is defining goodness in the face of pure, unspeakable evil. There's a disease (or a curse, whatever) transforming people of the village into mindless murderer and every character of the movie is taking action against it and define their own "goodness": Jong-goo is looking to protect his family, the priest is looking to confront evil and take responsibility for other people's survival and well-being, other characters are looking to use violence to fight the evil off, etc. The characters of The Wailing are positioning themselves against this unknown threat for selfish, yet profoundly humane reasons and that existential response to "evil" is really what the movie is about. It might frustrate some moviegoers because it's anything but a straightforward narrative, but it interestingly enough asks questions horror movies don't usually bother with. And these are questions I wonder about all the time too, so I liked it a lot. I liked even more that it couldn't come up with a satisfying answer.
The Wailing is not your typical horror movie. It's a little too brainy and theoretical for that, but writer and director Hong-jin Na remains faithful to what makes contemporary Korean moviemaking great and eschews conventional narrative structures to deliver tension and scares at unpredictable moment. The movie keeps you in philosophical pondering for a moment and then BOOM, hits you with a great horror scene. It builds suspense by keeping you guessing rather than anticipating. I would recommend The Wailing to people looking for an unconventional moviegoing experience. People expecting a horror movie will probably find this one dull and underdone, but if you start looking at it without anticipating the finish line, it will reveal its bold and peculiar nature.