Review: The Wailing (곡성)

Film still courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment
Film still courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

I love a good thriller/mystery and was waiting for The Wailing (곡성) to come to Toronto, especially after reading about how well it was received at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. And it didn’t disappoint! A dark film that trades on doubt and despair more than traditional horror, it’s a fabulous combination of dark comedy, supernatural thriller and crime drama with a dash of religion throw in. Okay, perhaps a little more than a dash.

Synopsis

A rural village is suddenly plagued by a series of vicious murders and suicides. While the police investigation is leaning towards mushroom poisoning for the deaths, rumours spread that a Japanese man living deep in the forest is truly to blame. When police sergeant Jong-Goo’s daughter Hyo-Jin contracts the same symptoms as the others, he heads into the forest to investigate. Meanwhile, he meets a mysterious woman who also blames the Japanese man and his mother hires a shaman to perform an exorcism on Hyo-Jin. Nothing makes sense and Jong-Goo doesn’t know what, or who, to believe.

Film still courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment
Film still courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

My Thoughts

First off, I enjoyed the film. I love that I kept questioning who the bad guy was and that it wasn’t cut and dried, nor easy to see the answer. It makes you think. That being said, I know from discussing it afterwards with friends, that I didn’t understand all the clues as I missed some of the religious references. No, I won’t get into specifics as you should watch the film for yourself and I don’t want to spoil it. But I will say that the quote from the Bible that The Wailing starts with is rather important and becomes more relevant as you get deeper into the film.

The mix of genres worked for me as well. The Wailing starts off more like a crime drama with lots of dark comedy thrown in to balance the horrific crimes being committed. But as the film continues – it’s basically 2 1/2 hours so there’s lots of time – it evolves more into a supernatural thriller. Don’t worry about the “horror film” moniker you might have seen as while there are a few scares, the horror element creeps in more from a sense of dread and despair. Everything leads up to the final scene where my internal monologue kept repeating “no, no, no, no” over and over.

Breaking up the scenes of crime and the building feeling of anxiety is some stunning landscapes and cinematography. And it’s not just the beautiful scenery that adds to the dichotomy that is in this film, the contrast between the sweeping countryside and rundown homes, especially those that the violence takes part in draws the viewer’s attention, and keeps in their mind the fight between good and evil that makes up this, and every possession film. Director Na Hong Jin (나홍진) does a great job at using imagery and the slow build up of tension and growing despair to not just grab the audience’s attention but to sink them so deep into the story that they’re invested in the ending.

Superbly acted with a main character that’s neither a hero nor anti-hero but rather an ordinary, if bumbling, guy who is trapped in an increasingly horrible situation. Kwak Do Won (곽도원) does a fantastic job of helping to build the sense of desperation and despair that permeates the film as Jong-Goo, especially after his daughter gets infected. While I expected more screen time from Hwang Jung Min (황정민), he nonetheless leaves a solid impression as the shaman. That was one kickass ritual he performed. Chun Woo Hee (천우희) is wonderfully mysterious and the viewer is never sure if she is real or not, and perhaps more important, if she is good or evil.

The acting and storytelling combine to draw the viewer in, throw them off and make them care. Despite his bumbling beginning, it’s impossible not to become invested in Jong-Goo’s family and the outcome. But for me, it was the slow build, the ever increasing feeling of dread that truly makes this film one to see.

My one issue was the ending. Oh, not the horrible culmination of Jong-Goo’s family, that fit perfectly in with the rest of the film even as it made me cry. But when the deacon, Jong-Goo’s police partner’s nephew, goes to visit who he believes the devil/demon to be, that scene. It just seemed more like traditional horror, and less like the intelligent supernatural thriller that the rest film was. Not bad, just not in keeping with the rest of the film.

Film still courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment
Film still courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Final Thoughts

Go see it! Despite missing a few of the religious references, The Wailing was a fabulous and entertaining film that blends some of the best elements of dark comedy, supernatural thriller, and yes, horror into an interesting film that will keep you engaged, guessing and even laughing at times. Pay attention to the details, pay attention to everything, and perhaps you’ll have an easier time deciding who the demon is. Regardless, it’s a fun ride deciphering the clues. And don’t worry overly about the ‘horror’ moniker, it’s such a slow build of tension and despair that you’ll only jump a couple of times. It’s currently playing at select theatres across North America (including two in Toronto).

Have you seen The Wailing? What did you think of it?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday – this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it’s taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I’m the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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