The Wailing is one of those horror films that reels you in with a moody atmosphere and a promising story, and then sadly disappoints. There is little I can point to that is outright bad about the film (although some of the performances leave much to be desired), but The Wailing simply loses steam soon after the opening scenes, and then drags you along a slow, dreary path toward the climax. If for nothing else, director Na Hong-jin should be applauded for creating an intriguing story, but to classify the film as “horror” is problematic. It has horrific scenes, but the style is reminiscent of a noir detective thriller, much like David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), albeit with a very different story to tell.
The Wailing is set in a small, secluded village in the mountains of South Korea. Following the arrival of a mysterious Japanese man, villagers fall victim to a fatal disease that causes skin lesions and extreme violence. A local police officer, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) investigates the strange sickness, and is led to confront the Japanese man by an equally mysterious woman named Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee). When Jong-goo discovers evidence that the Japanese man is linked to the disease, he becomes determined to banish him from the village for good. Meanwhile, Jong-goo’s daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), starts displaying symptoms of the disease, prompting Jong-goo’s mother-in-law to hire a shaman to cleanse her. Jong-goo soon realises that there is something supernatural about the happenings in the village, and races to solve the mystery before it is too late.
It must be said that the opening sequences in The Wailing are fantastic. They really capture the mood of a remote village terrorized by an unknown sickness. However, once the central protagonist and his bumbling side-kick are introduced, the film quickly loses steam. The performances do not match the visual and atmospheric quality of the production, nor do they match the overall tone of the story. It seems to be a necessary evil to include frequent comedy in thrillers, and even horror films, so as not to make them too “dark,” but in this case, the film would have benefited from fewer antics and more scares.
In addition to being far too long for its own good (approximately 156 minutes), The Wailing also suffers from scenes that are unintentionally annoying. When the shaman, Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min) is introduced, the film seems to take a turn for the better, allowing the supernatural elements of the story to be addressed. Unfortunately, the scenes in which the shaman acts out his rituals are unbelievably long and redundant, punctuated by loud, piercing drums and bells. In theory, this should whip viewers into a nervous frenzy as they become engrossed in the exorcism, but sadly it has the opposite effect. I sat there, wondering when the noise and commotion would stop so that the story could continue. If this were an entirely different kind of film, in which diversions from the story are included for artistic or thematic reasons, then these scenes would have been much more palatable. However, The Wailing is structured like a very straightforward detective thriller, with brief and inadequate scenes of horror thrown in at random, making the exorcism sequences feel completely out of place.
In all fairness to the The Wailing, it is not an entirely bad film. I am a huge fan of Korean cinema (particularly Korean horror), so maybe I set my expectations too high. If not for the overlong story, unnecessary comedy, subpar acting, and occasional annoying sequences, it would have been fantastic. It has the perfect atmosphere at the start and even a few interesting plot twists towards the end. Perhaps with a more experienced director, The Wailing could have been a far superior film; nonetheless, if you are a diehard fan of Korean horror, and have nearly two and a half hours set aside in order to slog through the story, The Wailing might just be worth your time.
The Wailing is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
Rating: ★★ out of 5