*** 1\2 (out of ****)
"The Wailing", the new South Korean film directed by Na Hong-jin, begins with a biblical verse taken from Luke 24:37-39 which starts off "they were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost".
The verse refers to the apostles seeing Jesus after he has resurrected from the dead. They are in disbelief. Jesus had died they thought, are they seeing a ghost? However in "The Wailing" the verse takes on a different meaning since the quote is not given proper context. None of the characters believe they are seeing Jesus or an angel. In fact it is the opposite. Something evil may be on the loose.
The setting is a small village where grisly deaths are happening. Victims break out in a rash and have boils all over their body. They go into violent spasms and die. Is it a virus? It is up to Police officer Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) and his partner Seong-kok (Han-Cheol Jo) to find out.
"The Wailing" presents Jong-Goo as inept but likable. He is under the impression he is smarter than his partner, who allows him to believe he is, maybe because he thinks it too. Jong-Goo, the audience suspects, may be a bit out of his depth in trying to solve these deaths. This allows the movie to go for a bit of comedy, challenging the audience's perception regarding what type of movie this will be. Will this be the story of the underwhelming cop that surpasses expectations during his investigation proving he is good at his job? In one bit of comedic lightness Jong-Goo wants to question a dermatologist who he believes will give him the answers he is looking for regarding the skin condition of the dead victims.
Soon though "The Wailing" splits in two halves. What starts off as a police procedural turns into a ghost story with religious undertones. Jong-Goo's daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan Hee), develops the same rash-like symptoms, leading him to begin to surmise he is dealing with the supernatural, an evil spirit. A prime suspect is a mysterious stranger, a Japanese man (Jun Kunumura) who lives alone in the woods. He lives in the same location some of the town's locals claim a half man - half beast lives.
The evil spirit may be trying to contact Jong-Goo however. How else to explain the terrible dreams he has been having, causing him to wake up screaming each morning while his family looks on almost unfazed, another example of a comedic touch. The question for the viewer becomes, at what point are we seeing Jong Goo's dreams and when does reality begin?
"The Wailing" is not a comedy. It has horror and thriller elements thrown together. Some that have seen "The Wailing" have compared it to "The Exorcist" (1973) yet as I watched the movie I kept thinking of another South Korean movie, "The Host" (2007) due to its ability to combine genres and then turn the genre on its head offering the viewer a different variation of a familiar theme. There is even a little bit of "The Walking Dead" in this story.
In english the word wailing means to cry in pain, grief or anger, when we combine that with the biblical verse we understand what they are frightened of and why they cry out. But, who is the evil in this story? Who is the good and righteous that may be trusted? Will evil be able to deceive the just and tempt them to its side?
Director Na Hong-jin does a good job setting the pace of the movie, though it is a bit excessive. The movie's running time is roughly two-and-a-half hours. Some of it could have be trimmed down. The audience however is brought into the story, which deliberately takes its time creating mood, due to its prime locations, and establishing the lead character's traits, making him much more believable as a person.
Na Hong-jin became a critical darling with the release of his directorial debut, "The Chaser", a very effective thriller which also blurred lines in the battle of good vs evil. This time however he may have out down himself. "The Wailing" is one of the year's best films.