The Wailing

Cast: Kwak Do-Won, Hwang Jung-Min, Chun Woo-Hee

Director: Na Hong-jin

Running time: 2 hours 36 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

Na Hong-jin's The Wailing is remarkable for juggling multiple tones at once without one single element rising to the surface to take center stage. One could label it a horror film, murder mystery, domestic drama, police procedural, supernatural thriller; even a dark comedy, and none of these descriptors would be misleading, However, unlike a lot of hybrids, The Wailing never settles into a comfortable genre groove; instead seeing fit to bend conventions with the reckless abandon that's become a South Korean cinematic specialty. At 156 minutes, it's almost too much of a good thing; a work of visceral kitchen sink maximalism which Na renders with a deft sense of control.

Control is also a word which comes to mind throughout The Wailing; along with bold, unpredictable, and operatic. Na has such firm control over his film that no matter how many detours he inevitably takes, there's never any sense of things slipping away from him. The story here takes place in Goksong; a mountainous locale with frequent torrential downpours and an increase in bizarre murders. Bumbling police officer Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak) is on the case, staggering through crime scenes like something out of a slapstick comedy. Meanwhile, his young daughter Hyo-Jin (Kim Hwan-hee) gradually becomes possessed by a mysterious spirit as he's continuously beset by hallucinatory visions and crippling nightmares. There's a Japanese loner (Jun Kunimura) living out in the woods, a shaman (Hwang Jung-ming) from Seoul sent in to cast out the demons, and a Zen-like woman (Moo-Myeong) who may be a supernatural being of some kind, all characters directly involved in the escalating mystery.

The Wailing moves like a police procedural, has the atmosphere of a supernatural thriller, the impending sense of dread of a slow-burn horror picture, and the laid-back vibe of a hangout movie. To this last point, Na actually allows scenes to breathe rather than rushing through plot machinations, with much of the film's first half alternating between Jong-Goo hanging with his partner and bumbling through the investigation along with spending time with his daughter. Moments of absurdist humor in which the inefficacy of the police force is laid bare are bracketed by scenes of harrowing violence and grim ponderousness, but at no juncture does the tonal shifts feel jarring. It's odd mix, but not unlike other South Korean genre films such as The Host and I Saw the Devil, which also hold seemingly contradictory impulses in tandem.

Tragedy bleeds into farce. Horror joins hands with comedy. Domesticity gradually splinters apart by forces unexplained. Jong-Goo's emotional journey; held together by the love for his daughter who comes under attack by demonic forces, is central to Na's brilliant deconstruction of genre elements here. Certain set-pieces; like a standoff between cops, priest, and ravenous dog as well as a group attack featuring a "zombie-fied" victim, are both disturbing as well as strangely hilarious. There's an awkwardness to these encounters--an absurdity of chaos--which always keeps things from feeling too familiar, despite the genre trappings.  When the ultimate reveal of what's really going on is finally unveiled, it's a twisted, sorta funny, somewhat sad, and fairly ridiculous visual punch-line. It explains everything and nothing. Which, of course, perfectly sums up the film overall; twisted, funny, sad, and ridiculous. And controlled. Let's not forget boldly controlled and unpredictably brilliant.