Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing hits such a spectacular home run that the ball will never be recovered from its landing spot. Not only is the film a compellingly told tale of suspense and terror, but it’s crafted with such precision and sense of timing that one can cry “Masterpiece!” without being shamefaced or wondering if a hyperbole-induced crime against all good sense has just been committed. Something strange is afoot in the village of Goksung, the locals going doolally and murdering each other.
For local cop Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a rather timid individual, 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 the film. In the age of the Hollywood super-movie, where runtimes are inflated (most blockbusters today clock in at around the 150-minute 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 doesn’t waste a single moment or scene.
At over two-and-a-half hours, Na’s third picture is allowed to breathe and slowly but surely grip its 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 to 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 this movie so extraordinarily good.
In just three films, Na has emerged as one of South Korean cinema’s best kept secrets. The Chaser, The Yellow Sea – a violent gangster thriller critic Kim Newman winningly described as “The stabbiest movie ever” – and now The Wailing, sure to be the one that earns Na international recognition, represent genre cinema at its most exciting and invigorating. No doubt American producers will soon be making eyes at Na in order to tempt him to cross the Pacific to work on something more ‘mainstream’. It remains to be seen whether that would be a wise move or not.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn