There is something in the water in South Korea. The nation has produced some of the most essential and innovative filmmakers and films in cinema this century. My close friends and I refer to the trio of Chan-wook Park, Joon-ho Bong and Jee-Woon Kim as the “Holy Trinity of South Korean Cinema.” Hong-jin Na is nearly there to making it a holy foursome. The Chaser is a riveting little genre gem, The Yellow Sea is a bloated but still gripping follow-up to an unbeatable predecessor. The Wailing is a flawed work but shines regardless in how it portrays its culture and beliefs against the backdrop of the supernatural. It’s Na’s first film in a long 6 years, and a welcome return to the silver screen. It’s a two and half hour slow burn descent into some sort of hell that offers no easy access to relief.
Na’s exorcism drama follows Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak), a semi-inept police officer in a small rural village that sees a spike of strange and violent murders after an old Japanese immigrant (Jun Kunimura) moves into the mountainside by the village. The investigation becomes personal for Jong-Goo when the evil that surrounds the village starts possessing his young daughter. The Wailing is just short of being an immortal classic, as it spends its climax throwing so many twists and turns at itself that the film crumbles under the weight of the constant revelations. The final shocking twists actually end up negating so much of what has happened and just cause more confusion than captivation. As always though in South Korea, the film is incredibly well made despite its plotting missteps. The cast is top notch, with Kwak capturing the melodramatic emotion well and Kunimura playing mystery and danger even-handedly. Na finds moments of humanistic humor in this dark tale and his cast sells them.
One curious thing that repeatedly caught my attention throughout the film is how The Wailing reveals how people in South Korea view the supernatural vs. how we in America view it in cinema. In America, we seem to have a strict dichotomy between the supernatural and the physical, and this has been displayed countless times in movies through the heightened ways supernatural scenes are filmed with their canted angles, loud camera movements and harsh lighting. In The Wailing however, there is no such cinematic shouting. Na films every scene with a calm hand, focusing on natural lighting and still imagery. One character asks how the Japanese stranger can be both a ghost and living being. Another replies by asking him why he seeks to make a distinction between the tow. The film shares that attitude. The supernatural and the physical are on in the same here, Na filming it as such to communicate this point of view. This ends up being The Wailing’s greatest strength, repackaging familiarities from from exorcism films previous through a new lens. In this manner, it creates entrancing imagery and sequences that are refreshing and unfamiliar. I’ve never seen an exorcism scene take place in broad daylight. Once again, this conveys the sort of naturalism that the supernatural is viewed with. It seems to just be another part of life there. Terror doesn’t wait until nightfall for these characters. Would an American film ever take this material as seriously and naturally as The Wailing?