Normally when writing a review of a film, I look at it from a theme. What theme was inspired by this film that I’ve just viewed? And how best can I explain that to my reader? In most cases, I’m able to find one thing that stands out strong and clear, even reminding me of another film. But in THE WAILING, a Korean horror film which just premiered at Fantasia International Film Fest, I’m struck with so many themes that I hope to do it justice.
Following a rash of murders where the killer is left stark raving mad or catatonic, each murderer having either dispatched themselves in the process or doing so shortly after capture, and is covered almost entirely by boils and lesions. A police sergeant, Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak, THE MAN FROM NOWHERE, A COMPANY MAN) is forced to investigate, when he’s used to not doing a whole lot in his quiet town. Jong-Goo is more Barney Fife than he is Sheriff Andy Taylor if you catch my meaning. Good-natured, wanting to do the right thing, he tends to do the thing that will get himself out of harms way more often than not. And while primary characters are generally our moral center, he is skittish, clumsy and apprehensive about doing the right thing if it puts him in any danger.
Living in his small house with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law, Jong-Goo finds himself with little privacy. With no “man cave” to escape to, he spends time down at the drinking hole in town quite frequently. And with limited space, he tries to get creative when it comes to amorous situations with his wife. As a man that currently lives with his in-laws, this part struck home. HARD. But despite his lack of alone time, Jong-Goo truly cares for his whole family, with his daughter being the crown jewel.
During his investigation, he is led to a Japanese immigrant that quickly becomes suspect number one as the cause behind all the madness. As he begins to have nightmares about the outsider, he realizes that his daughter may have interacted with him, and she too is showing signs of illness that the murderers all exhibited. Whereas before he felt forced into solving this mystery, now his stake in the matter has grown drastically. We find that once his family is threatened, he tries to be a better man, yet still doesn’t lose any of his failings.
From here, the film dives into a unique combination of supernatural horror with religious and ancient shamanic traditions tied in. The director, Hong-jin Na (THE CHASER, THE YELLOW SEA), does a great job of balancing tone throughout; giving you the ever growing sense of dread, but able to cut the tension with a joke or gag that isn’t overly cheesy. In that fact, I felt that the movie was fairly akin to Sam Raimi’s genre fare. And for the film being 156 minutes long, you’d expect it to drag along, but due to the balancing you are along for the ride the whole time.
One of the themes of the film is that of fear of the other. They use the nationalistic prejudices towards the outsider extremely well to add to the characters’ fear. And as the outsider is masterfully played by Jun Kunimura (AUDITION, KILL BILL), you can’t help but fear for him until he shows reason to otherwise. And with fear of the other being so prevalent in our society today, it made me focus even more on how the police in this film don’t resort to violence immediately, even when their lives are being threatened.
Out of all the strong performances in this movie, one stands out the most. The daughter Hyo-jin (Hwan-hee Kim) starts out the film as an overly precocious girl, but evolves into a force that you both fear from but also still fear for. She straddles the line between sympathetic and terrifying not unlike a young Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST. Having acted since the age of 6 on both television and other films, showing this strong of a knack at 14, she’ll be a cinematic force if she doesn’t burn out too bright, too quickly.
THE WAILING premiered at Fantasia Film Festival today 7/18/2016, and is seeing a growing theatrical release through Well Go USA and 20th Century Fox.