The connoisseur of contemporary horror cinema will be no stranger to some of the images that appear in The Wailing. Oppressively heavy rain. Disemboweled livestock. A candlelighted shrine. A screaming, possibly demon-possessed child. A rabid zombie lurching from one victim to the next, teeth bared and pustules flaring. Crime scenes that suggest CSI as photographed by Gregory Crewdson, in which every putrefying corpse and gore-spattered surface has been laid out with an almost surreal attention to detail.
Chances are, however, you haven’t seen all these things in the same movie, let alone assembled with such a rich, unsettling variety of moods. Set in Goksung, a remote South Korean village marked by a deceptive air of mundanity if not quite innocence, The Wailing runs a tense but unhurried 156 minutes, rifling through its genre grab-bag in such leisurely, comprehensive fashion that it might easily be mistaken for bloated or arbitrary –the latest example of our derivative, more-is-more movie culture.
If only it were that easy. Arriving on Western shores fresh off its record-breaking box-office success at home, this is the latest and most ambitious work yet from the gifted writer-director Na Hong-jin, who racked up commercial clout and festival acclaim with The Chaser and The Yellow Sea. Those memorably grisly thrillers added to a persuasive body of evidence that when it comes to crime fiction, few national cinemas can touch Korea for pitilessly sustained brutality. The Wailing suggests that Na may be in a special class by himself. When an onlooker shrieks, “What kind of twisted freak is he?” you wonder if he’s talking about the filmmaker.
He’s actually speaking in reference to a local ginseng farmer who, under the suspected influence of bad mushrooms, has slaughtered his wife and another man. Arriving on the scene several minutes late, as usual, is Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), a portly sergeant played here as a bumbling caricature of police incompetence. Well fed and under-trained, Jong-gu is also a family man who dotes on his wife and their precocious young daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), who ups the personal stakes when she starts to exhibit ominously Regan MacNeil-like symptoms.
That development takes its time, and Na allows the red herrings (and bodies) to pile up even as he casts eerie signs and portents in every direction. More murders occur, not all of them fungal in origin. A cop recalls a vivid dream about a red-eyed, diaper-clad man consuming raw deer meat. A Japanese hermit (Jun Kunimura) hovers silently around the edges of the story, his motives as inscrutable as those of a nameless woman in white (Chun Woo-hee). A shaman (Hwang Jung-min) turns up and performs a frenzied ritual involving drums, gongs and garroted chickens.
What does it all mean? What is the source of the evil at work here? Is a savior on the horizon, or is it the Antichrist? And in the end, does it even matter? That last question gets at the troubled heart of Na’s movie, which, rather than distinguishing between heroes and villains, seems to fix everyone with the same sorrowful gaze.
Cast: Kwak Do-won, Kim Hwan-hee, Jun Kunimura, Chun Woo-hee.
Writer-director: Na Hong-jin.
A Well Go USA release. Running time: 156 minutes. In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles. Strong violence, gore, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Tower Theater.