After a strange Japanese man arrives in the quiet South Korean village, a bizarre sickness spreads among the population. When someone in a policeman's family is affected by the disease, he makes sure to find the guilty and the cause of the disease.
Oddly enough I loved Hong-jin Na's film "The Chaser", but could not really get into his follow-up "The Yellow Sea" at all. Going into "The Wailing", it could have gone either way (and at times it did), but ultimately this is a movie that spices things up by mixing genres and keeping us guessing. Most of the time, the movie feels like other contemporary crime thrillers from South Korea such as "Memories of Murder", "I Saw the Devil", "The Man from Nowhere" and above mentioned "The Chaser". On the other end of it, it also throws in a blend of possession movies and zombies movie. And then finally, add some oddly (but wonderfully) placed comedy. That's essentially what "The Wailing" is - a serious crime mystery revolving around a sickness/possession, that's also funny at times. Essentially a perfect fit for the Fantasia International Film Festival, where it's currently playing!
Things are getting strange in a small little village in South Korea after the arrival of a Japanese stranger that the locals call "the Jap". People in town are getting killed in bizarre ways, and the people that have done the murders are all acting as if they're in a sort of trance. Boils and rashes are found on the perpretators bodies. A local cop gets dragged into this in more ways than through work when his daughter seems to be falling ill in similar ways as the killers. Everything seems to be pointing at the Jap as the guilty behind everything, but it gets much more complicated than a simple arrest.
I'll be up front and say that I am conflicted about parts of the movie. We all stay for the mystery that is being solved, but the way we're fed information isn't quite up there as something like "Memories of Murder". It is around two and a half hours long, so it certainly has the time to mix genres a bit, but there was a point around the middle of the movie where I lost interest (don't worry, it came back!). Is it simply due to its length? I don't know, but because there is horror to be found here, "The Wailing" sometimes falling into the same issues that the horror genre does. A horror movie is rarely at its best when it's this long. Now, this is not really a horror movie so the same rules must not apply, but you can't deny that it's part of its DNA.
The movie has some very gnarly moments. It's as visceral as expected from South Korean crime flicks by now. Hell, the movie is downright evil in its core. It's also gonna get to you a few times, especially when it's the lead character's daughter who is the next victim. There is one scene in particular that brings up memories of Regan's foul mouth in "The Exorcist", which feels as powerful now as "The Exorcist" probably did then. It was when the policeman comes to realize that his daughter is next, and we can start to see it, that the movie gets back up from its lowest point somewhere in the middle. And what a performance we get from Kim Hwan-hee as the daughter!
I don't want to give out too much information about the mystery and the horrors it contains, but will yet again bring up its genre-mixing. Oddly enough the comedy never gets in the way of the intrigue. The movie is very serious in its core, sometimes even philosophical, and has moments that are both tragic and thought-provoking, but it's also not afraid to flirt with slapstick comedy. I guess the comedy comes naturally as our lead man is a clumsy, well-meaning but confused cop who has to solve several murders in an otherwise quiet village. You can't help but admire filmmakers who are making something this dark, yet they throw in these levels of comedy (and make it work!).
I have come to really love South Korean cinema - especially the crime/thrillers. The mystery in "The Wailing" is not the greatest I have seen from this country, but it's still an interesting movie. There are many individual parts that feel familiar, but when it's put together in such a wild way as Hong-jin Na has done here you can't deny that it's fun to watch. Despite a few smaller issues, this was a good time. It works as a simple mystery movie, but if you want to dig deeper then you'll find a movie that uses religion, good and evil, tragedy, philosophy, culture, and it shows the lengths people are willing to go to save their own.