Movie Review: ‘The Wailing’ Is Thrilling

I’ve always felt that the best horror movies are only a small step away from comedy. Looked at from a certain perspective, films like “The Shining,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and even “The Exorcist” could even qualify as pitch-black comedies, with madness and violence replacing traditional gags. It’s the willingness to go too far, to transgress any boundary—good taste, plausibility, logic—in the quest to shock and frighten that places horror constantly on the precipice of ridiculousness. We know this because when horror movie swings for the fences and fails, there’s nothing funnier.

Few films walk the line between the ferociously terrifying and the gut-bustingly absurd as masterfully as writer-director Na Jong-gu’s “The Wailing,” a dazzlingly deranged ghost story from South Korea that keeps you on your toes until the very end. Even as the end credits start to roll you may not be quite sure what you’ve just seen. Na never tells you whether to laugh or scream. Often you end up doing both, as in a lunatic exorcism sequence that manages to be simultaneously one of the most intense and one of the most preposterous things I’ve seen. (The fact that it’s based on a real Korean practice, called “gut,” only heightens its horror and absurdity.)

Set in a rural town in Korea’s Goksung region, whose natural beauty is captured in gorgeously gloomy widescreen by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, “The Wailing” centers on detective Jong-gu’s (Kwak Do-won) investigation into a series of grisly deaths, each one preceded by violent behavior and red boils appearing on the victim’s skin. The mystery takes on a greater urgency for Jong-gu when signs of this mysterious disorder pop up in Jong-gu’s daughter. Investigators initially suspect a bad case of mushrooms, but eventually start to suspect that a local Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) may be to blame. But where did he come from? And what does he want? And who is this mysterious woman (Chun Woo-hee) who keeps appearing, seemingly out of nowhere? Can a local shaman (Hwang Jung-min) help solve the mystery?

Answers are not forthcoming, and even when the movie ends, it’s not entirely clear what has been going on. That would seem like a defect, but “The Wailing is so gripping and impressively told that its lack of resolution only deepens the mystery. Na is less interested in wrapping things up in a tidy package than in implanting clues in the minds of the audience and letting them sort things out amongst themselves. This is a high-risk strategy, one that can only work when the film is so captivating that an audience will stick with it even when the plot gets murky. Happily, “The Wailing” is such a film. Even with a lengthy 156-minute runtime, the pace never flags. Na creates scenes and images that keep us off balance, seamlessly blending police procedural, broad comedy, zombie attacks, surrealistic dream sequences, character study, gruesome violence, regional flavor, religious fervor, metaphysical horror, social commentary, family drama, and more, all while maintaining a consistent tone of creeping dread. It’s all wildly ambitious and remarkably successful.

What does it all mean, though?

That’s for you to decide. Perhaps there are culturally specific details most Americans will miss. For example, Korean antipathy toward the Japanese (which is apparently pervasive in Korea) is a motif throughout “The Wailing,” but Na never makes it entirely clear what he thinks about this issue. Are the Japanese really evil? Or are Koreans just manipulated into believing that? And what of the film’s allusions to the story of Christ, including an epigraph from the Gospel of Luke quoting Jesus (“a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have”) and a climactic reference to the story of Judas? I can’t claim to know what Na is up to with all of this, but I was never less than captivated by it. It takes a certain kind of brilliance to make confusion this damn thrilling.

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