When a mysterious man moves to a quiet town in Korea, illnesses, death and madness start to plague the residents. A policeman believes that the events are tied to this stranger’s arrival and he will stop at nothing to prove his theory, even if it means putting his family in danger.
Every once in a while a film will come along that will leave you gob-smacked and The Wailing (Goksung) is one of them. Proving that, quite honestly, the best, most thrilling and unique films hail from Asia, this is an astonishing achievement that defies all genre restrictions and refuses to conform to what we would expect from a typical horror film. This is a gripping gem that borrows supernatural and gory elements from horror, its eerie atmosphere from classic mystery and suspense thrillers, before sprinkling a dash of pure comedy on for good measure. These combined ingredients bubble together to create one hell of a delicious epic that you’ll immediately want to watch again. It will leave you guessing until the very end, gasping throughout and, quite simply, puzzled in the most glorious way possible. On more than one occasion you will believe that you’ve figured it all out, that the answer has been staring at you in the face the whole time and, of course that’s what is going on, only to be proven wrong and left dumbfounded once again. It’s a complex, exciting and frequently disturbing journey that unravels to reveal its dark and surprising centre in a perfect, well-timed climax that makes its 2 and a half hour runtime wholly worth your commitment.
The Wailing never settles on a specific tone or storytelling method and, instead, chooses to keep its audience on its toes like the characters themselves. Just as they are caught up in an impossible mystery that they are unable to escape, we are at this film’s mercy and forced to allow its events to untangle before our very eyes. On retrospect, my attempt to decipher the truth was a hapless task, because The Wailing’s intricate and carefully planned details are drip-fed to its audience purposely. If we feel as though we have placed a piece in the puzzle, it’s because writer-director Hong-Jin Na (The Yellow Sea, The Chaser) wants us to. We are just mere objects in his game, with no control and very little understanding of what is going on in this strange town even when we think we’ve picked up on a subtle clue. Of course, half the fun is in trying to figure out whether the mysterious man from Japan is behind the oddness in the town or whether it’s all in the head of the protagonist Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak).
Jong-Goo is police officer who starts to take the strange events personally when his daughter starts to develop symptoms that suggest she has been possessed by a demon. Jong-Goo’s characterisation is another way that The Wailing turns typical genre conventions on their head, because he is a bit of a bumbling man that is not taken too seriously by his colleagues. His anxious and stunned reaction to the strangeness that engulfs him is frequently funny, because he’s not a buffed up hero who is ready to battle the bad guy, but a family man who wants to save his daughter. The contrasting of his normalcy and the unnatural incidences create a brilliant polar opposition that literally explodes into pouring rain and wicked lighting on screen. The Wailing uses devices like pathetic fallacy to enrich the film on a surface level, but also to hint that there is more going on beneath its enigmatic exterior. The constant shift between relentless rain, thunder storms and blistering sunlight represent the roller-coaster of emotions and the thread of uncertainty that runs through the entire piece, but also, as a means of comedic relief. A clash of lighting is used humorously to show The Wailing’s awareness of horror tropes, but also as a simple symbol of the bad things to come. On a hundredth re-watch of The Wailing, I expect to still find tiny touches that previously went amiss, because every frame of every scene is crafted delicately to represent more than just what is immediately apparent. Everything is a clue to something bigger and every tiny touch is a reminder of the care that went into constructing this flawless masterpiece.
The Wailing is a master-class of storytelling, but also a showcase of gorgeous cinematography. The shots of Gokseung in South Korea are captured exquisitely to display the charm of the location and to draw on another of the film’s stunning contrasts; beauty vs horror. Horror films can be more than purely grotesque explorations of gore and grossness; not every scene has to be dripped with ick and grime. A horror film can be attractive and The Wailing is an impressive example of a film that desires to be beautiful on the outside, even if the film houses scenes that are blood-drenched, nasty and disturbing. The script, too, is a work of art that can be as equally admired as the film’s appealing presentation of events. Without this carefully manipulated story that effortlessly flows with twists and turns, there would be very little to enjoy. The power is in the narrative that grasps you from the onset, grips you like a vice and refuses to let go. It is impossible to not be hooked by the rumours that are spreading around the town and we will be as eager as the characters to discover what one earth is going on here. The story is a blend of myths, rumours and truths, but it is impossible to differentiate between the three as they are presented in the same realistic way. Dreams appear as facts, because prior conversations suggest anything can be real. Perhaps this film is a caution on not believing everything you hear and to take everything you read with a pinch of salt. Maybe The Wailing is a simple warning to gather the facts before you head on a wild goose chase.
Whatever it is, The Wailing is a marvellous example of relentless film-making and a cinematic achievement that promises mystery and slathers it on thickly. If you want to be frustrated in the best way and confounded frequently, then this is something you cannot miss. It’s baffling and complicated until its final moments, but it’s packed full of horror, intrigue and pleasant laughs to take the edge off and ensure you make it through its runtime in one piece. To put it simply: The Wailing is a faultless slow-burning thriller that packs a mighty punch.
Words: Jessy Williams (@JessyCritical)