Na Hong-jin can sure put you through a mental wringer.
Mysterious and very bloody murders, extremely nasty skin conditions: who or what is to blame? The choice seems to be between a mind-altering magic mushroom concoction and a strange Japanese guy who lives in the forest, fishing and living off the land. And what of the scary half-man, half-beast rumoured to live in the forest feasting on raw flesh? Is he the figment of someone’s imagination or something horrifyingly real?
A not very competent local policeman is grappling with all the above questions. There are echoes of Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Memories of Murder as the bumbling, blundering investigators are overwhelmed by what is happening round them. But Na Hong-jin also knows how to ramp up the tension to 11 or 12 on the scale. The investigation gets personal when the main policeman’s young daughter gets the same skin condition that is evident on all the dead bodies.
What’s rather fun in this movie is that in a cast of actors whose names haven’t been on my radar much (though Kim Hwan-hee as the daughter puts in a brilliant performance), about one hour into the movie we get introduced to the star name. Rather like the football manager who keeps his star striker on the bench, putting him on the field at the crucial point to swing the balance of play, Na Hong-jin waits a while before letting Hwang Jung-min ride into town as the shaman who will hopefully diagnose and cure the girl’s condition.
The climactic gut in which the shaman tries to drive the spirit from the girl, intercut with a parallel ritual taking place deep in the nearby forest, is a masterful piece of theatre, pinning you to your seat in terror. The shamanistic music is deafening, the visuals are overwhelming: it’s hardly surprising the poor girl wants it to stop. As you watch, you’re not certain whether the gut is having the desired effect on her: maybe one last push, as the shaman starts to perform with the knives, and the spirit will be driven out. Or maybe more sinister forces are pushing the girl closer to total possession.
One of the pleasures of The Wailing is the ambiguity which Director Na manages to instil into the plot. Whom do we believe? Is the Japanese guy guiltier than any sin or simply harmless and misunderstood? Is the strange woman whom we first meet lobbing stones absent-mindedly at the police investigators better off in a lunatic asylum or is she somehow trying to help? Is the shaman a good guy, a charlatan or something infinitely worse? We don’t know until the end, and Director Na doesn’t give much away until then.
If the gut was indeed the near-final climax of the movie and was followed by a simple coda and tying-up of loose ends you would be satisfied. But the movie carries on for a generous hour afterwards, with additional climaxes on the way. Rasping bass trombones point the way menacingly to the next impending fright. You relax for a moment only to be wound up at the next climax. At the end of the 156 minutes you come out of the theatre totally exhausted, marvelling at the gruelling experience you’ve just been through.
Maybe, looking back at the various twists and turns of the plot, you’re not sure that, as a whole, it all hangs together. What was the meaning of the things raining down on the car as it drove along the highway – other than an additional scare for the audience?
But it doesn’t matter all that much if there’s a seemingly random scare every now and then. When you go on a roller-coaster ride you don’t really mind whether you go left or right, up or down, at any particular point. What you want is plenty of thrills, and the physical sensation of terror. The Wailing gives you that in superabundance, with enough coherence in the storyline to ensure you don’t feel taken for a ride in a bad way.
Na Hong-jin (나홍진): The Wailing (곡성, 2015)