Monday, October 11, 2021

THE WAILING (2016) Movie Review

Scare-A-Thon Totals to Date:

Total Movies Watched: 10
Total First Time Views: 7
Amount raised for ALBANY PARK THEATER PROJECT: $486.50

The Wailing (2016) d. Hong-jin Na (South Korea) (156 min) (1st viewing)

A small, remote mountain town, Gokseong, is shaken to its core when a horrifyingly brutal and truly senseless murder occurs; there appears to be no motive whatsoever and the perpetrator is found on the scene catatonic and covered with a rash of boils. Called to the scene is Officer Jeon Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), considered a bumbler and layabout by his superiors, a man who would rather spend time with his family (and occasionally roll around with his neighbor in her car's back seat). Jong-goo is no classic hero, yet he finds himself caught up in an ever-tightening web of mysterious events and tragedies. When his daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes seemingly overtaken by a dark spirit, he becomes a man possessed (if you’ll pardon the expression), struggling fiercely to save his family and vanquish the evil that has swept over his life and those of his neighbors.

I confess to being initially put off by the daunting 2.5 hour running time whenever the opportunity to watch this title came along, especially since the main internet gripe was that of slow pacing and action wanting. I’m here to dispel both those myths: The deliberate pace allows for a genuine sense of authenticity within this place and its inhabitants, essential to support the kind of wild and unconventional horrors that Na has in store. As far as action goes, after a somewhat painstaking opening act, excrement rolls downhill at great velocity and, if anything, I found myself wishing things would slow down so that I could wrap my head around what I was experiencing.

This is a stunning film created by master craftsmen, once again reminding viewers that South Korean genre cinema is among the very finest in the world. Na joins the ranks of Chan-wook Park and Joon-ho Bong as a director to not only watch but revere, meticulously doling out one stunning tableau or sequence after another. He subverts terror tropes right and left, with zombies that barely blink at cranial blunt force trauma, ghosts that possess flesh and blood, and a spin on demonic possession and exorcism that dares to challenge the peak set by William Friedkin nearly a half-century prior. A bold statement, perhaps, but one by which I’ll stand, having literally thought to myself at one point, “I actually don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

The exorcism in this case is carried out by a flashy yet completely authoritative shaman (Jung-min Hwang) who enters the picture late in the day and instantly becomes its star, just as Max Von Sydow had done in 1973. This in no way is intended diminish Kwak’s accomplishments, as he carries the film from beginning to end, and the final product would not wield the incredible emotional power it does without our investment in this pudgy and pathetic individual who refuses to lay down in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Also deserving of note are Jun Kunimura as the powerfully stoic “Japanese man” who emerges as the main suspect, and Woo-hee Chun as a mysterious figure who haunts the fringes of the town and the story.

The first three acts, taking us to the two-hour mark, are stunning and near-perfect, which is why when Na ramps things back up for a fourth, audiences could be forgiven if their enthusiasm flags a bit. The narrative up to this point has been wholly satisfying, with innocence and justice badly battered and irreparably scarred. A weighty toll has been paid, and a cathartic conclusion earned.

But Na is not done with us, and 30 minutes later, we’re left questioning everything that has gone before, with our faith shattered and hearts broken. I’m not entirely convinced that the game played is fair – that evaluation will have to wait for a second viewing. What I do know is that this is an artist who plays by his own rules… and for keeps.

The Wailing is a powerful and unforgettable horror epic that deserves your time and patience. I recognize its inspirations, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

EDIT: Okay, I also just found this amazing article that I think fans of the film (and those confused by it) will enjoy. Hats off to Chris at Film Colossus!


  1. I have put this film off repeatedly thanks to the runtime. 2.5 hours is a LOT more than I usually want out of a film. But I think that your writeup convinced me. I'm watching it this week.

    1. It's funny, because I started it a couple years ago and made it about 20 minutes in and said, "I can't spend the next two hours watching this because, you know, IMPORTANT THINGS." But I'm glad I went back to it because I think it's got a LOT going on. (Definitely check out the Film Colossus link after you watch.)