Fantasia 2016 Review: The Wailing

Poster for the Korean horror film The Wailing.
Poster for the Korean horror film The Wailing.

“An old stranger appears in a peaceful rural village, but no one knows when or why. As mysterious rumours begin to spread about this man, the villagers drop dead one by one. They grotesquely kill each other for inexplicable reasons. The village is swept by turmoil and the stranger is subjected to suspicion.”
– Synopsis from the press kit for The Wailing.

Dread, murder, unexplainable events, irrational behaviour, gossip, rumours, nightmares, fear of the other, a large, fierce dog, big, black crows and mesmerizing rituals. That’s what you get in Korean horror film The Wailing (aka Goksung, 곡성).

I’ve wanted to see it ever since I read the rave reviews from the Cannes Film Festival. It did not disappoint! (The Cannes critics liked director Na Hong-jin’s earlier films The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, too.)

The Wailing is set in the beautiful, misty mountains of rural Korea, where people still live in old-fashioned homes with tile roofs. It looks like the kind of place where nothing much happens from one decade to the next.

A string of gruesome murders disrupts the tranquility and we watch as policeman Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) tries to figure out if and how they could be connected. While a newspaper headline blames the disorienting effects of poisonous wild mushrooms for the first murders, Jong-gu wonders if some kind of virus might be going around? (The presumed perpetrators all had horrible rashes.)

There's a lot of rain in The Wailing; it increases the feeling of dread.
There’s a lot of rain in The Wailing; it increases the feeling of dread.

Then there’s gossip about a strange Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) who lives in the forest. Some people are convinced that he’s evil, and responsible for the deaths, directly or indirectly. Supposedly he’s been seen wandering in the woods, half naked, chomping on dead animals. One woman says he’s a ghost, feeding on the spirits of the living. Any stranger could come under suspicion in an isolated community, but Japan’s earlier occupation of Korea would further complicate the way the locals view this interloper. Whoever or whatever he might be, a visit to his dwelling proves that he’s not just your everyday recluse.

Policeman Jeon Jong-gu is neither the suave, super cop of some films, nor the corrupt, crooked one of others, rather he’s an Everyman type; pudgy, and a bit of a doofus. After he gets a pre-dawn call to investigate the first murder scene he lets his wife and mother-in-law talk him into eating breakfast first – a few minutes more or less won’t make any difference to the dead, right? His boss and the other cops are not impressed when he finally shows up. Slacker!

Jong-gu seems rather indifferent to his wife (then again, this is not a romantic comedy) but he dotes on his cute young daughter, Hyojin (Kim Hwan-hee). Then she develops a rash too, and starts acting so much out of character that possession seems like a real possibility. When Jong-gu looks at her school notebook, it’s full of strange scribblings and scary drawings. (Have you seen The Babadook?) It also looks like it’s been mauled by a creature with long, sharp claws.

A mudang (shaman) is called in. The shaman is played by Hwang Jung-min and he’s great. I’ve seen shamanic rituals in many other Korean films but the ones here are exceptional, especially the second, longer, night-time one. (I read an article online that some people on the film set thought Hwang really was possessed.)

Hwang Jung-min plays a mudang, or shaman in the Korean film The Wailing.
Hwang Jung-min plays a mudang, or shaman in the Korean film The Wailing.

The Wailing is NOT one of those films where the villain confesses everything, or some expert explains it all before the credits roll. If you go with friends you could have some very interesting post-film discussions about what really happened, who was good and who was evil. The Internet is full of contradictory theories, with some people essentially saying “I’m right because I’m Korean!”

If you read those theories, bear in mind that director Na Hong-jin told the Korea Times: “I mulled over the ending and decided I had to leave it open.”

A final note: Sadly, we Montrealers don’t get to see many Korean films outside of film festivals. If you like the sound of The Wailing try to see it at Fantasia because it will be more impressive there, on a big screen, with a great sound system and the famous, enthusisatic Fantasia audience. Furthermore, some scenes take place at night or in murky interiors – you’ll be able to see them much better in the cinema.

The film is 156 minutes long, but doesn’t feel like it.

The Wailing
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Writer: Na Hong-Jin
Cast: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, Jun Kunimura, Kim Hwan-hee, Chun Woo-hee
In Korean with English subtitles, 156 minutes long, showing at the Fantasia International Fim Festival Monday, July 18, 2016 at 9:35 p.m., in the hall Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., Montreal.

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