It has been six years since Korean director Hong-jin Na presented his last film at Cannes, The Yellow Sea, and during those years, he has been putting every bit of his energy into creating what could be his finest work, the harrowing supernatural horror-thriller The Wailing. Bringing together a powerful crew, including Snowpiercer cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, and editor Kim Sun-min (Memories of a Murder and The Host), he’s created a film that burrows into the soul and latches on, one that conveys a sense of dread that lingers long after credits roll.
The Wailing follows police officer Jong-Goo, whose quiet rural village is torn apart by a series of brutal killings, each involving normal people driven to violent episodes by an unknown force. Does it have something to do with the mysterious Japanese man who has just taken up residence outside the city, or is it the strange, psychedelic mushrooms that have been sprouting up around town? Could it even have something to do with a mythical man living in the forest? To find answers to this, Jong-Goo will have to take a trip to the dark side of the law and spiritual world, and perhaps of his own soul, especially as his daughter begins showing signs similar those of the affected.
Na coats his film in grime. There’s barely a scene where the characters aren’t covered in mud, blood or other viscous substances, and the backgrounds are filled with carrion crows and flies. Most of the houses have fallen into disrepair, at least when they aren’t ashen from being burned down. It’s only fitting, as The Wailing is a film about decay — not just physical decay, but spiritual decay, as people become corrupted from the outside in. And people become roaming zombies attacking those around them — moral decay — as evil and darkness seep into the very hearts of the characters. Priests and shamans do battle against the forces of darkness, and even lose, as the film presents a darkness that seems to demolish everything in its wake.
To call The Wailing an exorcism film is to do it a slight disservice, but it certainly is one of the best in the genre. The exorcism scenes are like few I’ve seen before, with frantic edits, crisp cuts and a pounding drum soundtrack by Jang Young-gyu and Dalpalan. As a result, it creates a sharp tension while, in many cases, rarely showing the possessed victim. Na and his associates are so good at creating tension in these scenes that he wrings emotional resonance from a moment in which a man in rainbow clothing hits a girl in the head with a flower.
The Wailing is a dark and complex puzzlebox of a film, where careful attention and an open mind pay off in spades. It delves into mysticism, shamanism, Satanism and Christian symbolism, all without providing easy answers or a clear path to clarity. It’s a horror film that doesn’t attempt to to strike fear into its audiences with ghosts or roaming creatures, but with the fear of the corruption of our very souls; an insipid evil that can spread without thought or word and consume wholly. It’s a film that doesn’t so much scare as it harrows, boring deep into the psyche.
Ryan E. Johnson (@atxtheaterguy) is a theatre and film critic from Austin, TX. He enjoys the films of Sion Sono, Wong Kar-Wai, Ingmar Bergman and loves experiencing films told from bold, new perspectives.