From its scenes of villagers inflicted with a madness compelling them to commit unspeakable crimes to its chilling sequences of a shaman attempting to flush an evil presence from inhabiting the body of a young girl, Hong-jin Na’s long-awaited third film extracts genre thrills from the complex narrative of a humble policeman racked by visions as a series of murders poisons his town. The Wailing, like Na’s previous two films, serial-killer drama The Chaser (2008) and border-crossing thriller The Yellow Sea (2010), has wonderfully executed set-pieces that evolve organically from his long-winded but never less than compelling storytelling.
And like those earlier films, The Wailing (2016) is a bloated beast, clocking in at over two and a half hours. It appears, if you were to read the synopsis, a slowly evolving mystery thriller, but make no bones about it – The Wailing is a full-blooded horror film marked by scenes of demonic possession, blood-soaked savagery and a holy man attempting an elaborate exorcism of sorts.
Jong-Doo (Do-Won Kwak) is the officer whose troubling dreams coincide with a series of inexplicable crimes and the appearance of a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) whose presence is seen as a harbinger of doom. Jong-Doo is hilariously portrayed as a philanderer and a wimp whose first inclination is to whimper and scream like a girl in the face of mortal danger. Simultaneously he represents yet another uncomfortable reinforcement of the idea of general police incompetence in South Korea as first posed by Na in The Chaser.
When Jong-Doo’s daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes inflicted and seemingly possessed, he’s advised to bring in a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to consult with and provide direction. The ritualistic rites performed by the shaman are magnificently staged by Na with a riveting, relentless fervour. With the overwhelming sound of overheated gongs and drums beating like a trillion racing hearts, the shaman attempts to flush out the spirits plagued Hyo-jin, though by the end of this thrilling, elongated sequence, little progress seems to have been made.
Na’s deliberately paced screenplay allows for a fascinating and highly credible transformation in Jong-Doo. His earlier docility and emasculating instincts slowly dissolve as the affliction takes a very personal turn. He’s galvanised into action and the changes in him coincide with Na’s ratcheting up of the film’s intensity. Requisite twists and revelations are used cannily whilst a genuinely unsettling, eerie tone of impending doom begins to settle like a pall over proceedings, leading to a classic good versus evil confrontation that doesn’t play out exactly as you might imagine.
The film pulls no punches as the final scenes draw near. The bleakness remains resolute until the very end, and the admirable conviction of Na’s final twists will be troubling to some, but heartily embraced for their lack of compromise by others. With The Wailing, Na has completed a trifecta of distinct, energetically fashioned films; all three might be said to be excessively long – a criticism not without merit, however the level of this fine director’s craft is undeniable and hopefully the wait for his fourth feature will be a much shorter one.