Hong-jin Na’s The Wailing is a total nightmarish trip about possession and evil needing no reason to tear you apart—it’s a film that builds dread through powerful imagery and relentless horror inside a world covered in rain and blood. It thrives in a hopeless atmosphere, constantly wicked and never, not even once, shies away from the doom-and-gloom of it all—this is just a nasty piece of work and a real treat to the genre. In it, a stranger arrives in a little village and soon after a mysterious sickness starts spreading. A policeman is drawn into the incident and is forced to solve the mystery in order to save his daughter.
With a two-and-a-half hour runtime, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot going on in The Wailing—despite covering a lot of ground, it’s always moving the narrative quickly and never stops being a sinister work. But the the real focus of the film is how evil can wrap its long fingers around a weak man and squeeze the very life out of him just because it can. It’s that randomness that gets under the skin and the fact that this poor dude and his family get caught right in the middle of it really pulls at the nerves. And that’s what makes it immediately unsettling too, opening with a henious crime and a mystery that unfolds a wicked evil. From the opening scene to the very last, The Wailing is true to its name—cries of pain and grief are the main ingredient.
From the moment the movie starts, it’s apparent that Na is a master behind the camera (he somehow only has two other films under his belt), filling the screen with a breathtaking blend of stunning imagery and horrendous violence—it’s an entirely wicked experience as he breaks up beautiful sweeping shots of the countryside with the kind of horror that will have the skin jumping right off of your bones. And what’s crazy about that is the movie holds that standard throughout its entire two-and-a-half hour runtime—it’s always gorgeous and always keeps you on edge. Hell yeah.
The story is about this cop, who’s not a particularly good one, that gets caught up in a spree of vicious crimes in which the public is blaming on poisonous mushrooms—they seem to think it drives a person mad, sending them in a murderous rage. Others, however, believe that something supernatural is at work and it can all be traced back to when a strange Japanese man arrived in the village. As soon as the cop starts to investigate this strange man, the film starts to play mind games. It becomes a story that will have you thinking twice as the cop delves deeper into the mystery of the murders and the man who may or may not be behind it all. And just to really fuck with you, as soon as you think you’ve figured it out, the film just takes a crazy turn and pours on the horror behind the truth. In doing so, The Wailing is a nonstop ride to shit-your-pants town, a twirling descent into hell that ends in a jarring final act.
My only real complaint about this movie is that the cop, and some of the film’s supporting characters, make some seriously braindead decisions that make almost no sense whatsoever. There’s a point in the movie where the cop, his partner, and a priest-in-training decide to sneak into the mystery man’s home to see if he has anything to do with the murders—without spoiling anything, let’s just say they prove to be very bad at their jobs (you’ll know what I mean when you see it). The thing is, I really liked that the main character isn’t very good at being a cop because it shows a rare weakness in a character like him, and the film brilliantly exploits it by attaching an overwhelming evil to his life, but the fact that everyone else with him would be just as dumb (especially another cop) is certainly a reach.
I really like what Na has done with this movie—it’s incredibly unnerving because it builds tension through a slow-burn model, only this movie never actually feels slow (if that makes sense). The horror of The Wailing slithers through the narrative, popping up only to remind us that something much worse is just around the corner. In doing so, it delivers an incredible final act that’s shockingly quiet—especially for a movie that’s largely made up of people screaming—allowing it to really sink its claws in and get the last laugh.
The Wailing was reviewed out of the Fantasia Film Festival—find more coverage here.