South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-jin’s third feature The Wailing is an ambitious and audacious effort. Presenting a landscape consumed by paranoia and twisted folklore, this prolonged saga of shamans, demons, ghouls, and ghosts is undoubtedly impressive, despite being immensely frustrating.
The film tells of a small suburban village which quickly becomes slave to a wretched sickness; an ill which prompts good people to suddenly commit excruciating acts of violence as their minds become infected. Caught in the middle of the spiralling drama is Police Officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) who teams up with a mysterious woman and a spiritualist to attempt to break the cycle of hell, as well as free his young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) from its foul grasp.
Clocking in at a staggering 156 minutes, The Wailing is unnecessarily elongated by a good 30 minutes. Hong-jin could have sacrificed or shortened a number of sequences without tainting an inch of his film’s aura and momentum. It is functional at this length, but tiresome, and paired with large spells of uneven dialogue can make for an arduous watch. Wider issues stem from his screenplay, too; particularly tonal. The initial hour sets in a dense smog of broad black comedy. There are many laugh-out-loud moments – some intentional, others not so – and we settle into an intimate, if clunky procedural. However as we near the 90 minute mark, the mood shifts dramatically and lashings of absurdist violence take hold. Scenes of cannibalism, exorcisms, and everything in between ravage which are questionable and often a little silly.
It it clear that a sense of dread and horror is meant to leak from each and every image, and that the pairing of laughter and horror is a natural defence mechanism as we use humour to defect terror. To an extent this is acceptable, but The Wailing is at its very best when the cold hand nearly reaches your shoulder, rather than grabbing it and throwing you around tirelessly. A key sequence in which Jong-goo interrogates a Japanese immigrant who is believed to be the reasoning behind such ills is desperately scary and provocative, and for the most part the encounter is purely dialogue-driven. When the ante ups, and a rather angry dog gets involved, the brutal payoff feels earned. We have watched the drama escalate naturally, and now the auteur rewards with a bitter crescendo.
Whilst he might provide a convoluted and indulgent narrative, nobody can question Hong-jin’s visual abilities. This is a ravishing feast for the eyes; alive with opulent and ambient cinematography, intimate lighting, and angular framing. Sequences lash with violent rain, and are orchestrated in unique patterns to ensure each section has an individual look. His lens captures the closeness of Jong-goo’s family unit as potently as the enormous, claret-sodden horror. It is an atmospheric vision to behold, and considering the spectator takes residency here for a long while, it really needs to be.
The Wailing has the desire to reach, and for that it deserves respect. It blends a multitude of genre and thematic tones with the hope of producing something innovative, and although this is a largely imbalanced effort, there is enough intrigue to warrant viewing.
The Wailing opens in select UK cinemas from today (Friday, 25th November).