The Wailing (2016) by Na Hong-jin
Review by Andrew Swafford
The opening shot of The Wailing is a brief moment of tranquility, illustrating the shimmering reflection of the sun off a placid river where a man is quietly fishing. In the next scene comes a deluge of Biblical proportions that hangs overhead as an oppressive force for much of the film’s 2-hour-and-36-minute runtime, which would feel equally overwhelming if it didn’t immediately engage you in its powerful drama. Despite being a smoother watch than the length lets on, The Wailing is still a movie to reckon with, as it resists easy categorization or interpretation--it simply exists as a monument to all that is chaotic and incomprehensibly evil in our world, regardless of your ideology. The Wailing is a demonic epic that is equal parts Zen and Brimstone. It grabbed me and has not let go.
The film centers around a hapless police officer in a rural South Korean village who seems to be losing control of his life. He is often awoken in the middle of the night to report to crime scenes; he suffers from abhorrent nightmares; he worries about losing his sexual potency; his young daughter is growing up into someone he doesn’t recognize; the people of his town are increasingly afflicted with an unknown mental illness that turns loving family members into murderous creatures. In another film, one could imagine this playing out (well, even) as a domestic drama about middle-aged, fatherly weariness or inevitable police burnout. But The Wailing constantly communicates rumblings of something more--a type of Job-like burden that feels more cosmic than personal.
But Na Hong-jin’s movie is always personal, which gives it drama and levity that, if absent, would render the film’s bleakness insufferable. Like the character-driven horror of The Exorcist, which spends so much time developing its characters as fully-rounded human beings that the shrieky, puke-y bits actually feel like they matter, The Wailing operates primarily as a story about an exhausted father’s desire to do his job well and serve as a provider and guardian for his family. Leading man Kwak do-won brings a great amount of humility to the role, coming across as equally buffoonish and loveable in his passionate incompetence both at work and at home. For as heavy a movie as The Wailing is, it is hilarious--in more of a people-watching way than a jokey way--more often than might be believed, thanks to his truly believable and human performance.
That performance would feel less powerful, though, if not offset by the virtuosic intensity of Kim Hwan-hee, who plays his prepubescent daughter. When Kwak’s character suspects that Kim has been possessed by a demon due to her violent and profanity-laced outbursts, the audience feels two fears at the same time: the fear of child-rearing in general (so often confusing and chaotic to the point where our own flesh-and-blood might as well have been possessed by evil spirit), and the fear of the type of supernatural evil we see often in horror films (but rarely like this).
But what supernatural forces hold the cards in The Wailing’s universe? It’s ambiguity in this respect is perhaps what makes the movie most interesting. The movie opens with a verse from the Gospel of Luke (24:37-29), makes multiple references to Biblical lore (a plague of locusts, three-day waiting periods, the crowing of roosters to signify betrayal or lack thereof, etc.), and one moment seems undeniably Satanic (no spoilers). All characters but one, however, are Buddhist, and when dad suspects demon possession, he calls a shaman who casts a “death-hex” using a trance-inducing drum ensemble and freshly-sacrificed animal blood--and it seems to work! How both cosmologies exist as capital-R reality at the same time is a question the movie is purposely agnostic toward. Just as The Wailing mashes-up genres and subgenres (police-procedural, comedy, exorcist, zombie movie, etc.), it mixes a sinister brew of supernatural evil as well, implying the possibility of all the world’s imagined boogeymen as equally real--perhaps even one and the same.
The forces of chaos loom large in The Wailing, but the protagonist’s attempts to understand or take back control of his life are met with only more disorder. One character warns him near the end to simply to wait and be calm in order to prevent more violence from unfolding, but the temptation to act is too great. Perhaps this is our first great Zen horror film, which upholds the virtues of mindfulness and patience in the face of cosmic suffering--with an unforgiving runtime to match--or maybe it’s the cinematic equivalent of Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” I’m not sure, but The Wailing has its hooks in me, and I think I’ve accepted my fate.