Review: The Wailing

Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016) hits such a spectacular home run the ball will never be recovered from its landing spot. Not only is the film a compellingly told tale of suspense and terror, The Wailing is crafted with such precision and sense of timing, there is little hesitation in crying ‘masterpiece!’ without being shamefaced about it or deep down wondering if a hyperbole-induced crime against film criticism and all good sense has been committed.

Something strange is afoot in the village of Goksung. Locals are going doolally and murdering each other. For local cop Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won), a guy easily scared and rather timid, it’s the beginning of a journey into the heart of darkness and one which will change his life forever. To say any more about the plot of The Wailing would be to churlishly reveal its many twists, turns and revelations. Go in blind. Go in innocently. Ignore this review until after you’ve seen it!

In the age of the Hollywood super-movie, where running times are epic, most blockbusters today clock in at around the 150-minutes mark, many scenes feeling like DVD extras the director, hopped up on grandiosity and the zeitgeist for overly long films, couldn’t part with, The Wailing wastes not a single moment or scene. The epic quality matches the intimately epic quality of the storytelling. At 2 hrs and 36 minutes, Na Hong-jin’s third picture is allowed to breathe and slowly but surely gripping the audience in an anaconda squeeze.

It’s a film in which the director asks both the viewer and its lead character to ‘believe your eyes’ and understand things are going end badly. The horror content is electrifying and several scenes reproduce the feeling of sleep paralysis, of being unable to move as a threat either approaches or has you in its grasp. Like the witness dragged into the woods by Jong-Goo and a colleague, who is then fried by a lightning bolt, a perfect summary of The Wailing’s overall effect, the sense of entrapment and of freely walking into a trap is what makes Hong Na-jin’s movie so extraordinarily good.

In three films, Na Hong-jin has risen as South Korea’s best kept secret. The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2012) – a violent gangster thriller Kim Newman winningly described as the ‘stabbiest movie ever’ – and now The Wailing, sure to be the one that earns him international recognition, represent genre cinema at its most exciting and invigorating. No doubt American producers will be making eyes at Na Hong-jin and tempt him to cross the Pacific to work on movies over there. It remains to be seen whether that would be a wise move or not.

The Wailing is released in the UK 25 November