Directed by Hong-jin Na
Often when I’m deciding if I want to watch a film, I’ll look it up on this website to see what the others made of it. Sure, in Horror Cult Films Towers we often tend to disagree – even if it’s usually the Doc vs the rest of us. But I like to think our arguments are never less than very well reasoned. Lately, this 2.5-hour epic has been teasing me on Netflix, showing up on my recommended lists as if to assure me it’s worth devoting most of an evening too. So I looked in our index and was shocked to see we hadn’t actually reviewed it. Sure, we previewed it, showed a poster and even gave people a chance to win it on DVD. But we never actually said if it was any good. Consequently, watching The Wailing became less of something I could do, and more something I should do. After all, what sort of self-respecting horror site doesn’t cover it? It’s among the most acclaimed and popular foreign films of the past five years and has won numerous awards. It’s not hard to see why either.
At least part of it must be how fresh it feels. Instead of the big suburban house, we’re used to seeing these stories occur, the movie takes us to the small South Korean village of Goksung. Where some bizarre murders seem to be taking place following the spread of an odd, new disease that started after a Japanese stranger (Kunimura), who lives in the mountains, first showed up. Jong-Goo (Kwak) is a bumbling policeman, who isn’t used to this sort of thing happening in the arse end of nowhere, investigates the stranger and the mysterious deaths. What starts as a small-scale police procedural transitions into a demonic thriller when he finds the stranger’s house has an altar with a goat head and pictures of the infected. Plus, most worryingly, Jong-Goo’s daughter’s shoe. After Hyo-jin (Kim) soon turns sick, Jong-Goo recruits the shaman Il-gwang (Hwang) and sets to find out what demon is bringing sickness to his family and the rest of the village.
One of the problems facing directors making possession films nowadays is the prototype was arguably set, and near perfected, over 40 years ago. Yet whilst The Wailing is ostensibly about this, it’s not an exorcism film in any traditional sense. First off, something that pleasantly surprised me was how funny the film is for much of the first half. Parts of it have a kind of Hollywood story in a rural location charm that makes it like watching Hot Fuzz with a horror twist. Naturally, as the situation gets more grave, these bits are phased out. But in setting Jong-Goo up as not just out of his depth, but a loveable underdog, it makes his quest to save his daughter way more relatable than most po-faced rivals. This also helps resolve the tension between the intimate family story and the big scale conflict between good and evil, which is very carefully managed. The incredible scenery is as good a backdrop as you could hope for, and reinforces these people are pawns in a much larger game of chess. So while we the audience know that. But for Jong-goo it’s a very personal story.
Moreover, a lot of the expected plot beats aren’t present. There isn’t a gradual build-up to a prolonged ceremony, with characters repeatedly arguing about what’s real, and the priest’s ritual (halfway through) is like no other you’ve seen. There’s also no jump scares, with the scares coming mostly from an ongoing feeling of terror that builds up and up to a boiling point. Sustained dread is a tough emotion to elicit and, for the most part, this manages it right until the emotionally draining third act. Yeah, it’s hella long, and if you slap an extra half hour on it could even be a mini-series. But above all else, it’s a captivating story being told very well. As such, despite loo breaks, I never felt my attention wander. I also expect there are layers of meaning I’m missing, with allusions to local folklore and historic distrust between Korea and Japan during the latter’s occupation. In that respect, it may get even better with some swotting up.
In the early 00s, the success of the Vengeance Trilogy turned people in the West onto Korean horror. Other excellent movies like The Host, I Saw the Devil and The Silenced then started getting some attention too. Since 2016, we seem to be entering another prime with films such as Gonjiam, Train to Busan and The Mimic, subverting now tropey templates. The Wailing is another brilliant example and makes Western supernatural horrors like dull by comparison. If you haven’t seen it yet then do so asap. After all, sites like this are written by fans, and no self-respecting one should miss it. Particularly those who already wrote a top 5 for the year it came out.