The Wailing has confidence. That confidence oozes not only from director Na Hong-jin (The Chaser) but also from the film’s distributor, Fox, which premiered the film out-of-competition at Cannes, then in South Korea’s box office vs Captain America: Civil War (it won; making it one of the few territories where Marvel didn’t come out on top). After only two weeks of strong international buzz it’s coming to America.
It makes sense why Fox is so confident that it can find a niche cult audience—starving for horror—especially after the strong opening in its homeland (a country that’s 21st Century-renowned for its international cinematic appeal). For the first two hours, The Wailing is an instant classic possession film. It’s a blender of all your favorite recent genre films from Korea, there’s the bumbling but competently-passable detective, à la Bong Joon-ho‘s Memories of Murder, there’s some comic relief from the people overseeing the fallout of a deathly crisis that’s gripped the town, à la Bong’s The Host, there’s an exorcism that beats up a demon about as bad as Oldboy did in Park Chan-wook‘s Oldboy. The problem is—after two fantastic hours of volleying between shocks, mysteries, and oddities (child-interrupted coitus! who-dealt-it office farts! re-animated corpses!), The Wailing‘s tone shifts to super serious and tacks on multiple different endings and rug pulls for another 40 minutes, à la Kim Jee-woon‘s I Saw the Devil.
There was a point in The Wailing, after seeing a Shaman and a demon react to each other’s ceremonial blows, via three separate physical bodies (the Shaman, the demon—who is a physical person, not an inhabitor—and the little girl he’s hexed), where I was ready to declare this one of the best exorcism films of all time. It’s still high up there for the genre. But then it just kept going. And where it went did not feel like the same movie, but a new chapter in the Book of Revelations. The carefully constructed tone gets thrown all out of whack (did you miss the mention of reanimated corpses and loud office farts?).
There’s a lot to recommend about The Wailing. Particularly the Shaman’s (Hwang Jeong-min) rituals and that the child is revealed to be possessed in her own sweet—but now vulgar—tongue. She swears, she ridicules her father (Kwak Do-won), she makes grotesque drawings, but—in a way—it’s creepier because it’s still her voice, not a demon’s grotesque voice like in The Exorcist. So her father has to think that there’s still a part of her that’s close to the surface that he might be able to bring back from the control of the demon.
The perceived demon is a stranger in town, referred to only as the Japanese Man (Jun Kunimura), who has a shack in the woods. This stranger has been seen in nightmares by town residents, where he’s routinely eating the carcass of a dead deer, “in a diaper”, with glowing red eyes. After a series of grisly murders have the similar odd trait of having the murderer still present at the scene, muttering to themselves in a daze, the police begin to suspect that something supernatural might be occurring. But the police don’t really take action against the stranger in the woods until one of their own detective’s sees his six-year old daughter become afflicted. And that action is placing a call to a renowned Shaman, who can locate the physical manifestation of hexes like none other.
What’s delightful about The Wailing, and a lot of South Korea’s best films, is a subdued, old-school slapstick comedy that compliments the grisliness. Na perfectly sucker punches us in moments we’re conditioned to expect a traditional jump scare. He also takes some jabs at it’s own methodology—like when the traditionally dressed and intense Shaman changes from his robe into a sporty track suit when he’s punching off the demon clock (until he gets paid; even a demon fighter has gotta look out for himself). The successful parts of The Wailing is much more than dark humor, though, as Na creates an atmosphere of murky unease, bubbling over with questions. But at a very precise point the methodology starts to get muddled, very serious, and it’s no longer fun. Allusions to Biblical plagues and Christ, and his followers who betrayed him, follow a scene where it very much feels like the movie could have ended and the father’s actions for stopping a sequence—in hindsight—scream that a director’s unannounced intent is coming in the form of a prolonged denouement.
If I sound overly negative, it’s only because the movie is so close to being great. In fact, it was great. And then it became something else.
The Wailing opens in select cities, June 3.