PLOT: Upon the arrival of a mysterious Japanese man, a small South Korean mountain village is suddenly beset by a skein of grisly murders. When the lead detective on the case soon realizes his family is endangered, a shamanic ritual is organized in order to rid the evil once and for all.
REVIEW: Over the last 15 years or so, South Korea has become undeniable power player in the world of high quality cinema. Chan-wook Park (OLDBOY,), Jee-woon Kim (I SAW THE DEVIL) and Joon-ho Bong (THE HOST, SNOWPIERCER) have been at the forefront of such a movement, and now it's officially time we etch visionary writer/director Hong-jin Na to the edifice of what could only be construed as the Mount Rushmore of South Korean filmmakers. No hyperbole. Following his first two features - THE CHASER and THE YELLOW SEA - Hong-jin now returns with perhaps his most ambitious effort to date, one that took six years to complete. The wait was worth it, as THE WAILING is equal parts a deeply engrossing detective yarn, a mystifying ghost story, and a searing family drama that, when all computed...amounts to nothing short of an unshakable, genuinely unsettling cinematic splendor. Recommendations cannot come high enough, for in every filmmaking department across the board - script, direction, sound, cinematography, editing - THE WAILING is weird and wildly winsome!
The opening shot of the film - a lone Japanese fisherman hooking a worm - lends symbolic thematic significance we'll get to in a bit. First we meet Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak), a womanizing, halfhearted police detective dwelling in a remote South Korean mountain village. He has a wife, young daughter and mother-in-law living with him. When Jon-Goo is dispatched to the murder scene of a ginseng farmer one day, he and his partner witness what looks to be a ritualized, unremitting bloodbath. More curious yet is how the killer did not flee, instead remained tethered to a post...febrile, eyes aflutter, covered in boils, totally whacked out of his gourd. Trace amounts of wild mushrooms found in his blood sample are thought to be the primary cause of his maniacally murderous outburst, but Jong-Goo isn't a believer.
Soon, more murders throughout the village further stoke the enigma. It seems an inexplicable plague of sorts has taken hold, as each of the killers' bodies are beset by rashes, hives and bubbling lesions. More mysterious yet, the strange Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) from the beginning appears at each murder scene, watching from afar in the background. When Jong-Goo notices this, he begins seeking answers as to who this man is, why he's there, and if he has anything more to do with the deadly homicides. During one crime-scene visit, a young woman shows face (played by Woo-hee Chun), claiming she knows what exactly is going on, including the nature of the stranger's identity. She's privy to the Japanese man's presence and correlating horror it presents. Jong-goo merely dismisses her as a local nut-job at first, but later comes into deep conflict over whether to trust what the girl implores or treat her as the ghastly presence she herself might be.
This leads to a series of unnerving investigations. Jong-goo and his partner question a man who allegedly saw the Japanese stranger deep in the woods one day, quadrupedally feasting on a dear carcass, eyes supernaturally bloodshot. The witness has been stirred ever since. Jong-goo forces the man to show them were the Jap lives (Jap being their term), yet as they approach, the man is suddenly struck by lightning. Some greater force is clearly at work. When they do finally locate the Jap's remote little hut, more questions than answers are provided. A collage of photographs of each of the village's victims - before and after their grisly deaths - are splayed like a vigil on a hidden back-wall. And not just photos, but the victims' personal belongings. Jong-goo even finds his own daughter's sneaker. What gives? Returning home, notices something eerily afoul with his child. She too seems infected by whatever sinister curse has overrun the village. She grows vile, violent and virulent. As a line of recourse, the family summons an expensive shaman named Il-Gwang (Jeong-min Hwang) to perform a spiritual ablution. It's he who posits that the Jap isn't a man at all, but a ghost, sans flesh and bone, that has somehow subsumed human form. Jong-goo, now desperate to restore order, agrees to pay a handsome fee for the shamanic ritual.
Now the film kicks into overdrive. It's here where the story reveals itself to channel a balefully biblical epic...a malefic meditation on the Book of Luke. See, a quote from said book given before the first frame of the film hints to the nature of evil within. What constitutes a man, what constitutes a ghost, and the purgatorial go between the two. Adding to the portents is the constant torrential downpour, crashing lightning and all, which also reinforces the authentic naturalism the entire movie adheres to. Shot on location over a four month shoot, these environs feel utterly lived in, which goes a long way in believing what becomes an increasingly supernatural tale. Not to give away much more, when the shamanic death hex is cast, the entrancing nature of the story begins to possess our imaginations even more than the characters are themselves. The film seeps deeply into your pores and festers, unforgettably so. Much like THE WITCH, there's a mysterious slow burning menace that creeps its way under your skin...and stays put!
For that, I loved this film, and really can't echo the sentiment enough. It's a challenging watch, no doubt, but more than a rewarding one if you're willing to invest your undivided attention in the arduous 156 minute journey. Sure, 20 minutes could be excised, but that's pretty much the only downturn. And honestly, to label this a mere horror yarn is a lazily reductive injustice, the film is so much more than that. Most of the movie defies description, transcends category, and most importantly, keeps you guessing all the way through the heart-thudding, bloodcurdling finale. It's addictively intriguing in that regard...you want answers, but you're almost too jarred to find out. There's such care and attention to detail to the authenticity put into the craft of the film that the supernatural elements become terrifyingly buyable. It's a movie that's damn near impossible to forget!