Na Hong-jin’s (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea) third feature is no question his most epic and ambitious effort to date, a moodily unsettling romp that’s severely compromised by a less-stellar second half and brutally overlong run-time. However, it’s still difficult to shake the movie’s overall intoxicating thrall.
In the rural South Korean town of Goksung, a mysterious sickness is spreading, causing the victims to lash out violently before dying. Police officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is among the cops investigating; are the cases merely caused by wild mushrooms, is there a more sinister explanation, or is the answer something nobody has even thought of?
This is absolutely a film that benefits from the audience knowing as little as possible going in – I elected not to view the trailer beforehand and it worked a treat – as it only enhances the prevailing, eerie quality throughout. The mystery is itself enticing and sinister from the outset, yet Hong-jin demonstrates a superb handle on tone, with unexpected bursts of humour, largely by way of Jong-goo’s precocious daughter character (the terrific Kim Hwan-hee), much of it venturing into near-pitch black gallows humour.
It’s that inherent weirdness which keeps the film vacillating between dark and light, while at the same time making trenchant real-life statements about how small towns may choose to deal with seemingly senseless tragedy. This is all aided by Hong Kyung-pyo’s eye-wateringly gorgeous cinematography, and very occasionally sullied by some almost hilariously ugly red-eye visual effects; why they didn’t opt for contact lenses, we’ll never know.
As engrossing as the pic is, it’s also agonisingly slow at times, especially in its less-intriguing, arguably exhausting second half. As beautifully shot and tenciously edited as a mid-film ritual sequence is, for instance, it ultimately disrupts the film’s flow and contributes egregiously to some brutal pacing issues.
While The Wailing ultimately amounts to less than you may expect – the third act is sure to leave many scratching their heads – it’s still a compelling journey with a terrific ensemble of performances and some incredibly atmospheric direction. If you dig it, you’ll almost certainly want to follow-up with a swift repeat viewing, because there’s a lot here left to unpack.
The Wailing premieres at the London Film Festival on October 12th