Na Hong-jin’s masterpiece, The Wailing is the perfect way to spend a night in, especially on Halloween. This is not just because two-and-a-half hours is an acceptable window of time to gorge on chocolate on the one night of the year where it is not only socially condoned, but encouraged. It is also because the film is so thematically rich and unsettling that it deserves its own night of attention. It is so successful, in fact, that it makes some of the better highbrow American horror films of late feel like high school productions.
The Wailing centers on a small village in South Korea, where a mysterious illness is spreading throughout the community. Aside from painful blisters and sores, the illness seems to make the sickened go on brutal murdering sprees. Answers are offered from every human domain you’d expect—Doctors, Pathologists, Herbologists, Shamans, and Catholics. However, the only explanation that seems to stick comes from the town gossip, who (very politically incorrectly) insists that the plague must be coming from a person solely referred to as the Japanese Man, a recluse who recently moved into the outskirts of town. The main protagonist, Jong-goo, serves as a main investigator on the case and initially uncomfortably shrugs the suggestion off. However, as cases proliferate and intensify, Jong-goo’s level of desperation, feeling of powerlessness, and constant failure to fulfill his male gender norms as masculine protector edge him closer and closer to acting on the unspoken communal inner-racial discrimination and act on a modern day Korean witch/ghost hunt.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Na Hong-jin film is that he manages to infuse it with an atmosphere that is inescapably sinister while simultaneously featuring gorgeous, color-rich shots of South Korean countryside. I’d bet my mini Reese’s peanut butter pumpkin that it will make you feel like you can’t wait to go visit there and also GTFO. Additionally, the story is told in a manner that makes it feel like more of a mystery-thriller than just a horror film. Na Hong-jin even gives the audience the chance to ask themselves what they believe is behind the illness and why. The religious iconography, cultural commentary, and just enough ambiguity provided in the story ensures that thought-provoking conversations filled with opportunities for self-reflection are to follow post-credits. Add in an unexpected climax and one of the most riveting endings to a movie I’ve seen since Whiplash, and The Wailing easily establishes itself as one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
One last note I can’t help but make is that the performances are incredible, with lead actor Kwak Do-won carrying the most difficult task of turning a characteristically pathetic protagonist into someone to root for. Jun Kunimura is also fantastic as the Japanese Man; his precise and understated performance is likely to elicit more emotions from you than any of the other characters in the film, despite having virtually no lines. However, Kim Hwan-hee, Jong-goo’s daughter, possibly outshines everyone in a performance so dynamic and mature that the term “child actress” almost seems insulting. All three are stars to watch.
Watch It When: You have a night free to engage in a long (but worth it) film with room for reflection.
While You Watch: Given the prominent themes of racial discrimination, prejudice, gender expectations, and religion, how might a U.S. adaptation of this film play out in with western audiences?