Na Hong-jin is one of those rare cases in S. Korean cinema, which, despite having enormous success with their films, are not exactly eager to follow up. In that fashion, he has shot just three films in eight years, with the previous one (The Yellow Sea) screening six years before. His absence was quite felt in the country’s cinema, but his return fully compensates.
In a seemingly peaceful village, a kind of epidemic suddenly breaks out, with people losing their minds and attacking their relatives and with their skin suffering from a hideous infection. Their attacks have resulted in violent deaths, and the local police seem unable to deal with the case, eventually concluding that poisonous mushrooms are causing this behavior. Among them is officer Jong-goo, who hears a rumor about a Japanese man living on the top of a nearby hill being the actual perpetrator, a suspicion that becomes stronger after a strange young woman, named Moo-myeong confirms the fact. Eventually, he tracks down the man’s house and comes across a series of truly horrific spectacles. Being kind of coward himself, he tries to avoid the situation as much as possible, but when his little daughter, Hyo-jin, comes down with similar symptoms, Jong-doo is willing to go to extremes to save her. Meanwhile, his mother-in-law invites Il- gwang, a shaman, to perform an exorcism on the girl while a deacon named Yang Yi-sam, is also involved, as a translator of Japanese for the police.
Na Hong-jin directs and pens an agonizing thriller, building the tension gradually as the story progresses, until the utterly shocking finale, which is, probably, the film’s greatest sequence. He incorporates a plethora of horror-favorite elements and notions, including zombies, vampires, demons, and exorcists, although the only one majorly implemented is the latter, with the rest existing, for the most part, to create an atmosphere of supernatural horror. In that fashion, he avoids the reef of hyperbole, maintaining a very serious approach throughout the film, despite some minor moments of unexpected humor. The pace is neither fast nor slow, but has the most fitting speed for the story, which artfully escalates as the time passes, until the impressive ending with the continuous plot twists. Apart from that, there is much cursing, violence, and a number of truly grotesque bloodbaths an spectacles, in general, which supplement the general aesthetics of the film.
The cast is another point of excellence, with Kwak Do-won giving a wonderful performance as Jong-goo, an easily intimidated police officer who transforms into a relentless hunter for the sake of his daughter. Kwak has been mostly cast in secondary roles during his career, and he proves, in this film, that he is made of protagonist material. Hwang Jung-min is great as usual as Il- gwang, in his path of becoming the next Song Kang-ho. The one who truly steals the show, however, is Jun Kunimura as the mysterious Japanese, whose acting and physique, make him the perfect choice for the particular role, as he constantly exhibits a subtle but obvious threat, despite the fact that he does not speak very much. Kim Hwan-hee is also great as little Hyo-jin in a rather difficult role that demanded her transformation from a cute and smart little girl to violent, constantly cursing possessed individual. Lastly, gorgeous Chun Woo-hee shines particularly in the end, with a truly eerie performance.
Technically the film is magnificent, with Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography presenting wonderfully the grotesque atmosphere in the rural surroundings of the film, while exhibiting images of bucolic beauty as much as of onerous terror, particularly inside the various houses in the area. The editing is also great, retaining the agony throughout the film, and the music magnificently supplements the general atmosphere of the film. The movie’s technical prowess is mostly exhibited in the exorcism scene, where two opposing rituals take place simultaneously, with the difference in their purpose becoming obvious by the opposite colors (white and black) of the cocks sacrificed. The same applies, even more, to the ending sequence.
“The Wailing” is a truly great spectacle, a must-see for every fan of S. Korean cinema and a great return for a great filmmaker.
The film is part of the excellent Asian selection of Fantasia International Film Festival that will be on in Montreal until August 3.