For the first 30 minutes or so, The Wailing (Goksung), has its charms, but as the film wears on, those moments become more and more sparse. Director Na Hong-jin has moments of blending horror and humor with deft cleverness, yet the film unravels. As it lumbers along on its exorbitant running time, The Wailing bobs and weaves with redundancies, inconsistencies and the classic horror problem: frustrating logic, that makes the film feel like a bit of a slog. It isn’t a terrible film, and critics have been adoring to it. However, several note problems in storytelling or a loss of substance in cultural translation.
The specter of a terrible murder hangs over police detective Gong-Joo (Kwak Do-won), as he tries to head to work while his family insists he have a meal first. This is a small village, where everyone knows their neighbors’ business, and is elderly mother and young daughter pry him for details. Gong-Joo, in turn, is established as a pushover who still can’t say no to his mother, nor even his daughter, when they ask for the gory details. Even with nothing of the crime scene shown, the mix of the mundane interrupted by the perverse feels palpable. When the detective arrives to the crime scene, in the pouring rain, the foreboding sensibility delivers: beyond the alleged killer perched catatonic on the porch, eyes frozen white and mouth agape in the pouring rain, is a bloody room out of David Fincher’s Se7en.
Nu understands the need for surprise scares, and he embraces them to the hilt. There are indeed charms to this film. The lighting in the darkness is not just black and shadow but colorful and atmospheric. DP Hong Kyung-pyo, who shot Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (An apocalyptic train ride: ‘Snowpiercer’ – a film review), does fabulous work. In one great, early encounter with a sinister Japanese character (Jun Kunimura) living in the lush green mountains, Hong angles the camera to make a slope on the mountainside more precarious, inducing vertigo in the audience, just before revealing a demon lurking behind a rock devouring the corpse of a deer. Cut to the police station. “Was that Scary or what?” says a character. Righ on cue, a huge crack of lightning, interupts any chance for a response. Nu’s toying of horror film tropes and then one-upping them is nothing short of awesome, and it has a great effect of being both frightening and hilarious in its extremeness.
Kwak’s self-deprecating and sometimes high-pitched performance is the perfect complement to this indulgent style of filmmaking. His detective is a mixture of Keystone cop and Brad Pitt in Se7en, throwing his obligation to the wind as an investigator when his daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes a target to an evil force that seems to have befallen the village. As the involvement of family ups the stakes in the film, it can sometimes seem frustrating just how little Gong-Joo seems to care about his job, while the body count rises. It’s one of several moments of disconnects that reek of implausibility. Some manifestation of a sense of conflict might have helped round out the hero better.
There are a few noteworthy scenes including a showdown of rituals between a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) and the Japanese man, who may be the devil incarnate. There’s also an unrelenting encounter with a zombie that shows those things can be harder to kill than it seems on “The Walking Dead.” Nu also uses a smattering of smart match cuts a la Spielberg to up the sly humor. From a burnt man in the hospital, Nu cuts to a close up of BBQ meat, for example. But the viewer will have to judge for themselves if tolerating a jarring, culturally obscure horror story is worth the price of admission for such scenes.
Unfortunately, for this viewer, the charms are not enough to keep at bay feelings that this film could have been more tightly edited in the all-encompassing sense. Its characters beg to be more fully and consistently drawn and Nu’s reach for a conclusion includes a drawn out flip-flopping of who-can-you-trust that drags to the point of defusing any sense of tension. Obscuring its depth for Western audiences is the film’s cultural subtext. For those in the West keenly aware of the tense relationship between Korea and Japan, there is something deeper going on, and the film begs awareness of the differences in culture. Even the nuances in religion is key to understanding the actions of some characters that hint at ulterior motives, which otherwise aren’t clearly spelled out (did you know putting nails into a totem takes away its power to keep demons out of your home?).
It’s not easy to keep the horror movie genre fresh. Even aficionados approach the latest iteration from the scene with skepticism. The Wailing does try to be different, and it sometimes succeeds. However, as whole, it will leave genre fans wanting more. Maybe it will do for a decent fix, but come the following weekend, you’ll be wanting to look for something else. Hey, at least we have Popcorn Frights to look forward to (Tickets for Florida’s premiere horror movie fest Popcorn Frights on sale today; a chat with the fest’s creators).
The Wailing runs 156 minutes, is in Korean and Japanese with English subtitles and is not rated (it’s freaky, bloody and includes animal death). It opened exclusively in South Florida at the Tower Theater Miami this past Friday. For dates in other US cities, visit this link. Distributor Well Go USA provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.