The Wailing is an Unsettling Horror movie gem without Jump Scares

The Wailing (2016)
Director: Hong-jin Na
Starring: Do-won Kwak, Jun Kunimura, Jung-min Hwang, Woo-hee Chun

My reaction after watching the Korean horror/thriller The Wailing is “I’m going to have to google the explanation”. That’s not to say it’s incomprehensible, I understand the bare bones of the story. It’s that The Wailing leaves me with lots to think about and figure out. Reading the different fan explanations makes me appreciate even more what director Hong-jin Na has brilliantly crafted. There’s a depth, both in narrative and themes that keeps me thinking about The Wailing the next day. 

On first viewing, The Wailing’s initial acts are purposely ambiguous. Set in the present day, Jong-Goo (Do-won Kwak) is a police officer in a small Korean village where a mysterious infection is turning people crazy and murderous. Some of the townsfolk are weary of a foreign stranger living in the nearby mountains who might be responsible for the sickness. The Wailing does a good job of keeping me guessing is it going to be a zombie, exorcism or perhaps a hallucinatory mushroom flick? Will there be a scientific or supernatural explanation to the strange occurrences?

What I like about the story is that as much as Jong-Goo is caught between multiple forces pushing him one direction or another, he ultimately has a choice and his decisions have significant consequences. Like Jong-Goo, in a key scene the movie viewer doesn’t know who to put their faith in. Who is telling the truth and what is the right decision? The ambiguity plays against the good versus evil dichotomy. Director Hong-Jin Na doesn’t portray good and evil in easily identifiable black and white terms. 

With a run time of over 2.5 hours The Wailing is a bit long but I can’t say that I was ever bored. There’s something happening and confounding clues to be found in every scene. The Wailing’s tone transforms over the course of the story. Jong-Goo is a bumbling cry baby-ish cop and his reactions to scary things is somewhat comical. As Jong-Goo is put into more dire circumstances, The Wailing becomes increasingly spooky and some of the final images I couldn’t easily shake. I had a bit of trouble falling sleep at night. Director Hong-Jin Na accomplishes the horror without a single jump scare. It’s the kind of horror that slowly creeps up on you and when it reveals itself, it’s unsettling. 

As I was watching The Wailing, I couldn’t help but to think that if it were ever to be remade for an American audience some things would get lost in cultural translation.  Perhaps the elements that would work are the Christian themes. The Wailing opens with a biblical scripture: “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones” which sets the framework for Director Hong-Jin Na’s point of view. I like that the setting is in a rural community, not far from a modern metropolitan city, that is still in touch with traditional Korean folklore and shamanistic rituals. Further, because the foreign stranger is Japanese it carries implications in terms of racism and xenophobia which The Wailing craftily plays on.

The Wailing is steeped in imagery and themes that pull from many different sources. It’s a lot to take in on a single viewing but doesn’t become too messy that the story falls apart. Director Hong-Jin Na’s leaves certain things open to interpretation and debate. It’s a film that probably makes more sense after reading fan theories and then rewatching to put all the pieces together.  The Wailing works as a provocative horror/thriller which has plenty of layers to uncover, some of which is quite disturbing.

Rating: ★★★★☆  (four out of five stars)

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