Most horror movies deal with the unknown; sometimes that manifests as ghosts or monsters, other times its zombies or supernatural entities. The best ones, though, deal with the unknown regarding humans; the brutality of human nature, what we would do to protect what is dearest to us, our psychology, the construct of our society and norms crumbling down in front of us, etc. The Wailing is one of the best horror movies in recent memory. Directed by Hong-Jin Na and starring, amongst others, the legendary Japanese actor Jun Kunimura, the movie is set in the small, South Korean village called Goksung where a mysterious disease starts spreading, right after the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Jun Kunimura). Jong-goo (portrayed by Do-won Kwak) is a police officer, caught in the middle of this mystery and has to solve it in order to save his daughter; as always, this is what I knew before watching the movie and about as much as I will spoil of the plot.
What The Wailing does so expertly is that, it mixes several genres effortlessly (something of a trademark feature in Hong-Jin Na movies, like The Chaser and The Yellow Sea), including sub-genres of horror; simultaneously, it is a slow-building, suspenseful horror movie with supernatural entities, a mystery build on the stakes of a fast-moving disease, and a character case study about an apathetic man who is put in a situation he does not understand and has to rely on other characters, in order to save his beloved daughter. It is, at the same time, a movie which uses known genre tropes in a distinct and original way, as well as an unconventional movie that does NOT rely on jump-scares or dumb decisions, to be entertaining and horrifying; and it is horrifying! I was not startled with cheap jump-scares, but I was legitimately scared by the implications the movie leaves you with, exploring themes of faith, family and culture, amongst others; I don’t want to spoil the movie or ruin your personal interpretation of it, so I won’t discuss any of them here. Furthermore, the non-horror elements are excellent, enhancing the suspense the movie creates and the characters that drive it; for example, comedy is used to provide a bit of levity and to establish the fact that Jong-goo is apathetic about his job. Pacing wise, this ability to shift focus and tone is what allows the movie to be as long as it is (at 2 hours and 36 minutes, it’s pretty long) without making the viewer fatigued or bored; there could have been a few edits in the middle to cut the runtime down a few minutes, but honestly I watched this movie 3 times in the past two years and I never felt bored or fatigued.
Beyond this symmetry of genres and different elements, The Wailing is impressive as a visual experience, as Goksung is a remote village in the wilderness, filled with plush forestry and gorgeous natural vistas, which the cinematography does an excellent job of capturing their beauty and leaving you terrified of their isolation and creepiness. Move past the forest and you will find people, houses, roads and the village itself, displayed in a variety of ways; from the bright colors of day and how the village and surrounding landscapes are shown under the sun, to the grim and creepy vibes that night scenes possess, there’s variety and depth in the visual style. Simply put, the movie looks gorgeous, but beyond the visuals, the cast is excellent as well, with Do-won Kwak and Jun Kunimura as standouts in their roles, as well as Jung-min Hwang and Woo-hee Chun as the idiosyncratic shaman and the mysterious woman respectively; but a special performance was given by Hwan-Hee Kim who plays the daughter. Her performance in the beginning is endearing and natural, which was required for the rest of the movie to have emotional stakes for the viewer; without spoiling anything, her acting skills were really tested for this movie and she passed with high praise. The music was surprisingly excellent as well, adding to the suspense, as well as playing a vital role in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie. In the end, all of these elements work well together to create a memorable and intense horror experience, a thrilling, drama/mystery with twists and revelations that shift your understanding, and your perspective, of what had happened thus far, all presented in a gorgeous audiovisual experience with some fantastic acting and directing as well.
Having said that, there are some issues with the movie, besides the aforementioned hefty length; thankfully, these issues lie mostly in the first act of the movie. For the first act, the tone is wildly inconsistent, for reasons that will be known later, which is no excuse and pretty off-putting on your first watch. This is an issue I noticed the first time I watched the movie, but I am very patient with movies, especially movies who try something new and interesting. Also in the first act, the pacing is really bizarre; moving from grizzly crime scenes to slapstick comedy within seconds. Thus, the first act is certainly the weakest of the movie, but it still manages to set-up the drama, stakes and story of the movie very efficiently. Lastly, The Wailing is a weird movie with weird and disturbing scenes; some of those scenes were ridiculous and over-the-top in a way which did not work for me.
To close with, The Wailing may not blow your mind; in fact, you might hate it! It’s certainly not a movie for everyone and it never attempted to be, but it is a bold, artistic and capable attempt to create something that feels new and has something to say, some things to ask; it requires you to contemplate what it’s implying, what the story actually is and asks you very deep and personal questions. It takes its sweet time doing so, but it is worth it, not only for the scares, the drama, the laughs, the visuals and the music, but for the combined experience of all the elements that make this movie. I implore you to give chances to such attempts, because if you do end up liking what you saw, you might end up liking it so much, that you watch the movie 4 times in the past 2 years, like I did, and still enjoy it.