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September 27, 2016

The Wailing

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Na Hong-jin - 2016
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

What I wasn't prepared for when I saw The Wailing was just how funny things get during the first half hour. Yes, the film begins with a small town police Sergeant checking the scene of a very grisly murder. But whether showing up late, losing his footing while on the crime scene, or being caught by his own young daughter having sex in a car with another woman, Jong-goo appears to be a chubby, bumbling cop.

What Na has effectively done is to lull the viewer into thinking that the horror and mystery will be balanced out with some humor. It's after that first half hour that the film becomes a serious meditation on faith and evil. There is still one moment of humor to come, reminiscent of the kind of scene that might appear in an early film by Sam Raimi. People are dying of an unknown malady that manifests as rashes on the body, and intense spasms, often killing those around them. The deaths are attributed to an older Japanese man who lives alone, in a decrepit house in the woods. Jong-goo attempts to question the stranger at his home. In those same woods, a younger woman appears, telling Jong-goo that the Japanese man is a blood sucking demon.

Where Na's filmmaking skill is demonstrated is in a scene of dueling shaman. Jong-goo's daughter, Hyo-jin, appears to be possessed. At the same time that the shaman hired by Jong-goo is performing his dance, the Japanese man is conducting his own ceremony. Na cuts between the two shaman and Hyo-jin, who is thrashing in pain on her bed. A percussion based soundtrack is used, with multiple drums for Jong-goo's shaman, and a single drum for the Japanese shaman. Na took about half a year to film The Wailing, followed by a year to edit, and it shows in this scene with the combination of visual and aural complexity.

The Korean title refers to an actual location in South Korea. Na emphasizes the natural beauty of the lush, green forests and the mountain. There are some similar thematic concerns with Na's previous film, The Yellow Sea, about an ethnic Korean from China caught between rival South Korean and Chinese gangsters in Korea. That the townspeople of Gokseong are ready to blame the Japanese man for the string of deaths would appear to xenophobic. It is worth noting that a temporary English language title for this film was The Strangers. Both the cause and cure of the madness consuming the community would appear to be forms of indigenous shamanism. A lay deacon proves ineffective, and Buddhism is essential reduced to mere props on an altar.

Na refuses to provide any clear answers. There may be more than one devil at work here. Even when using elements that may recall other classic horror films, Na Hong-jin has enough twists and turns so that nothing remains too familiar.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 27, 2016 09:43 AM