When a mysterious sickness causes a spate of horrifically brutal murders in a normally sleepy Seoul suburb, the media blames poisonous mushrooms. But detective Jong-Goo (Do Wan Kwak), whose young daughter appears afflicted, has cause to suspect an elderly stranger (Jun Kunimura) recently arrived from Japan.
After his stunningly assured debut, The Chaser – one of a tiny handful of serial killer thrillers to hold a candle to The Silence of the Lambs – and grim, gripping crime thriller The Yellow Sea, expectations were high for South Korean director Hong-Jin Na’s first foray into the horror genre. (Although if the bleak, brutal The Chaser isn’t classifiable as horror, you might wonder what the hell is.) And while its lengthy running time is something of an endurance test, it’s no accident: despite plunging us deep into the action from the start, Na keeps us tonally off-balance for the next hour, and takes his time setting up the investigative elements (its bumbling detectives recall Joon-ho Bong’s Memories of Murder), before peeling away these ostensibly formulaic layers to reveal a far more complex blend of police procedural, visceral horror, pitch black comedy and socio-theological allegory.
Builds to a climax that is both genuinely shocking and grimly inevitable.
As the murders begin, local detective Jong-Goo struggles to marshal his hapless colleagues into following the clues to the outbreak of violence in Goksung, the sleepy suburb of Seoul where he lives with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law. But when his young daughter becomes afflicted, he is torn between his rational investigative mind and his family’s religious beliefs, ultimately agreeing to subject her to a violent exorcism by a respected shaman. All the while, he suspects – with perhaps a touch of the inter-Asian xenophobia that infused The Yellow Sea – that the horrific goings-on are the work of an inscrutable Japanese man, who appears to know more about the murders than he will admit. But is the rash of killings the work of someone – or something – more insidious, sinister and dangerous?
The Wailing flags a little in the second act, with perhaps too much time spent on the shaman’s exorcism rituals, but it’s essential stuff in setting up a third act that constantly wrong-foots the audience, and Jong-Goo’s well-meaning investigation, building to a climax that is both genuinely shocking and grimly inevitable.
Two-and-a-half hours long, but never slow, The Wailing takes its time to burrow under your skin, but by the time it weaves its dark, potent spell, it leaves you with a lingering, unshakeable sense of dread that Hollywood horror films can rarely muster.