By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
I’ve been preaching this for years now, but nobody does genre film as well, pound for pound, as the South Korean film industry. Monster flicks, fucked up procedural thrillers, kinetic action, pure horror- it’s all happening on the southern half of the Korean peninsula, and if you’re not with the program, you’re simply not even aware of some of the films in any of those genres being produced today.
You don’t even know how much you need to see this.
The Wailing goes and combines several of those at once, genre remixing being another Korean specialty, at first appearing to be a police procedural with a mostly in over his head small-town cop at its center, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), but soon pivoting to a supernatural thriller with the souls of his entire town in peril, perhaps from the mysterious silent Japanese man living in the woods (Jun Kunimura).
This film is just… unrelenting, as an incredible sense of doom and misplaced but desperate hope ratchets continuously for almost three hours. It just… doesn’t… stop… escalating, even despite the surprisingly effective humor of the bumbling, overmatched from the start Jong-goo and scenes that almost feel like Shaun of the Dead outtakes. Kwak owns his role, displaying a mix of comic incompetence, reluctant determination, and pure terror. Also extremely effective is Jun Kunimura as the mysterious Japanese forest-dweller who all of this hinges on. Director Na Hong-jin keeps you guessing, and to a large degree his ability to do so is tied into Kunimura’s ability to do the same.
Na is also a master stylist, like many of his Korean contemporaries. For every exciting Hollywood director like Chad Stahelski or David Leitch (John Wick), it seems like Korea produces three genre aces. The cinematography by Hong Gyeong-pyo (Snowpiercer) is dark and dripping with menace, and the sound design, particularly whenever shamanic rituals rise to their hellish crescendos, is the real reason to see this in a theater, as it pushes you deep into your seat, arms rising protectively, instinctually. This is horror just as it should be. Terrifying.
This will get your heart pounding more than you thought possible.
Like a lot of films that keep you guessing, the urge to analyze will be overpowering, and pretty damn unsatisfying whenever your brain wheels stop turning on it. It at first appeared we were heading towards a certain morality tale, and I think we still got to one in the end, but damned if I know the moral it was trying to teach.
Ghosts can’t do shit?
The Wailing is a beguiling, bedeviling, two hour and thirty-six minute held breath, and your head will keep spinning long after you exhale it.
The Wailing (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: anytime Jong-goo freaks out
Take a Drink: for each transformed creature
Take a Drink: for any reference to mushrooms
Take a Drink: for rituals
Do a Shot: for those cat eyes (you’ll know, each time)