Been a while since I have reviewed a fairly new release, and the opportunity to look at the latest film by Na Hong-jin was too good to turn up. I loved his ‘The Chaser’, and whilst I may have missed ‘The Yellow Sea’, I know it got a few good words written in its direction. This one though comes with some great box-office, awards and a lot quite the online debate. Luckily I have some time over the Bank Holiday weekend to sink into this 156 minute opus, so let’s find out how the experience went.
The film is set in rural modern-day Korea, where we are introduced to Police Sergeant Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), a man who won’t let the chance of a good breakfast get in the way of doing his job. However, things in the sleepy town are about to get rather strange. A number of murders happen, with the perpetrators all acting out of character, and covered in boils. The official story is given that they have all ingested some bad hallucinogenic mushrooms – but Jong-gu is far from convinced. He isn’t that interested in those blaming the strange Japanese man (Kunimura Jun) who has recently set up house in the outskirts of town either. The strange proddings of a mysterious young woman (Chun Wo-hee) don’t seem to do much more than raise a little curiosity. That is until his young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) exhibits not only the boils, but a new horrible and violent personality. Encouraged by the girls’ grandmother to employ a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to exorcise the ghost/demon that she thinks is possessing her grand-daughter, Jong-gu finds himself in the middle of a supernatural battle to save the life of his beloved child.
Wow. Now, my long term readers will have seen me talk about the 156 minute running time and pretty much double-guess that this one was far too long for me. Whilst that is partially true, other than a small segment at the end of the second act, I was in this for the full funning time. It might be epic in length, but director Na get up the interest up until the final credits. It mixes police procedural, some humour, classic demonic possession, commentaries on racism and religion, and still finds time for classic Korean family based melodrama. And then I still needed to go online to work out exactly what had just happened.
Thing is, the guts of the film do demand some knowledge of certain Korean (and pan-asian) beliefs in terms of Shamanism, types of ghosts, and photographs. Once you realise that there is a deep held concern in some cultures of the power of a photograph of a sleeping person (in the sense it can capture the soul of the subject) much more becomes clear. But ever then it takes a lot of work on behalf of the viewer to completing work out the underlying mechanics of the plot and the motivations and allegiances of the protagonists. I’ll be honest, I haven’t had to reply on external sources this much since I was first blown away by ‘Donnie Darko’. But as that movie is still in my top 3 movies ever.. not necessarily a bad thing.
“The Wailing” might be a bit confusing and quite the investment in time, but it reminded me so much of what it was I love about classic modern Korean cinema. Genres mash together, and it is able to make me laugh in the first act, and feel incredible sadness in the final act. It grabbed me viscerally and emotionally. Visually, whilst sometimes things are a little dark, it looks fabulous, with Na clearly on top of his game. Although it is a film with much blood, murder and deaths, much of what goes on actually happens off screen, which just adds to the pervasive atmosphere of mystery and confusion and fear.
Performances are great all round. Kwak is more familiar as a supporting actor, but creates a lead you can empathise and get annoyed with. Kunimura is a giant of Japanese cinema, who gives his complex character a huge amount of gravitas. Young Kim is frankly brilliant – but then isn’t this a country with a phenomenal number of brilliant child actresses? The only criticism is that we don’t have enough of the usually fabulous Chun – by keeping her under wraps it creates more confusion for the viewer about her motivations and part in the greater game being played out.
“The Wailing” is a classic. It’s the best film I’ve seen for ages. It has great performances, and fabulous direction. It is probably over-long, but it doesn’t really have a dull minute that one could easily trim. And whilst I did need to go to the internet to work out quite what happened, that will only make my repeat watches more interesting. It’s Highly Recommended. And surely the subject of a future easternKicks Reacts!