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Wailing, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Unexplained violence in a small town becomes something far scarier."
5 stars

Na Hong-jin has material for several nifty thrillers in "The Wailing" and they don't entirely come together into a cohesive whole despite having plenty of time to do so in a movie that, even by Korean standards, is kind of a long sit for a genre film. What makes it kind of brilliant is that this is clearly by design - Na wants certain things to be impossible to understand, and he's got the talent to make this a satisfying part of the movie rather than a cop-out.

As it opens, police sergeant Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) is being called to a crime scene, but it's early, and his wife (Jang So-yeon) and mother-in-law (Heo Jin) insist that he sit down for breakfast first. It's a disturbing scene - two people dead, the apparent perpetrator outside the home in some sort of fugue state - and there will be more like it in the coming days. Many in the town blame a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) who has just moved into a cabin on the outskirts, and the words of a possible witness (Chun Woo-hee) lead the police in that direction. And while Jong-gu is initially doubtful, what he finds when he, partner Oh Sung-bok (Son Kang-kuk), and Yang Yi-sam (Kim Do-yoon), Oh's nephew brought along to translate, investigate that cabin is quite disturbing. In the meantime, the symptoms observed in the others who have gone violently insane are starting to show up in Jong-gu's ten-year-old daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), leading his mother in law to call in a shaman (Hwang Jung-min).

There may be actual detectives investigating the killings, but Jong-gu is a uniformed officer, doing things like guarding the crime scene or handling crowd control, and while it's possible that the town of Gokseung (in Korean, a homophone of "Goksung", or "Wailing") is just too small to have investigators, it sort of makes more sense that he's simply on the periphery, not that important in the grand scheme of things, and too much a slightly out-of-shape guy with ready excuses for being late all the time to make one believe that any supernatural force is targeting Hyo-jin as retribution. Randomness can be more unnerving than purpose, even when it's harder to make dramatically satisfying.

It's fitting, then, that character actor Kwak Do-won is cast in the part - in scenes at the police station, he blends in with the rest of the crowd; at home, Jong-gu is not the henpecked and belittled husband, but he's not the strong head of the household either. Kwak has a real talent for making his character seem in over his head and kind of goofy, even when he's trying to take control over the situation he's in, and he never falters in finding that space between everyman and reluctant hero. His desperation is always genuine, and he connects with the audience while also providing a center so that his co-stars to build a small-town feeling around him.

Most of them are similarly low-key performances - Jang So-yeon and Heo Jin are quietly perfect as the wife and mother-in-law who, without explanation, are able to give us a family with history and tensions but still functions as a unit. Son Kang-kuk and Kim Do-yoon do something similar as the partner and drafted assistant helping him investigate the newcomer. Even Jun Kunimura and Chun Woo-hee (whom some may remember as the title character in Han Gong-ju) often underplay their parts, although there's no doubt that there's something about both the newcomer and the unknown girl who points the police at something other than dangerous mushrooms that should make audiences nervous. It makes the contrast to Hwang Jung-min's shaman all the stronger; Il-gwang is confident and even flamboyant, not quite enough to take pull all the attention in toward himself, or make the rest of the cast look timid, but it's enough of a jolt to get the audience to notice the difference, maybe approach him warily, even while also getting sucked in by the charisma that's a necessary part of the character.

Hwang's ability to grab the screen is of prime importance during one of the film's biggest showpieces, as the shaman and the Japanese man conduct competing rituals at the "dog hour", and for all that Na has built the film up slowly with occasional horror-movie bits - the Japanese man appears as a red-eyed demon in the townspeople's second-hand stories and Kim Hwan-hee grabs the scene as one of the most best kids succumbing to madness or demonic influence in some time, this sequence is electric, pulling the audience into two different spiritual spaces that seem like opposing forces on multiple axes. Na and his editors cut between them masterfully while cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo uses the sunset hour to blur the lines between the modern world and the mysterious supernatural. The craft on display is amazing, and it makes for a heck of a climax.

And then it's not, and that's what lifts The Wailing from something eerie and suspenseful to something really scary - it's got a few more big sequences where the game changes and Jong-gu, Yi-sam, and others find themselves in situations that they are thoroughly unprepared to face. The audience may raise its eyebrows during one and mutter that this hadn't been that sort of movie up until then, but it seems more than life and death for the people on screen. The actual climax is another cross-cut bit, mostly between two conversations, where doubt about everything intensifies. Na Hong-jin presents his audience with the chilling possibility that it is actually impossible to know which of the premises laid out before them is true - or whether they all are, or we're seeing people grasp at anything because an inexplicable situation has driven them to madness.

That's the truly horrifying thought, and Na doesn't undercut it by giving the audience a last exciting but superficial jump scare. He's built and sustained a much more elemental sort of fear, and there's no need to fall back on the light stuff to send the audience home with a merely superficial uncertainty of what just happened.

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originally posted: 06/07/16 09:03:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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3/19/20 Langano Interesting film. 4 stars
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  03-Jun-2016 (NR)
  DVD: 04-Oct-2016


  DVD: 04-Oct-2016

Directed by
  Hong-jin Na

Written by
  Hong-jin Na

  Do-wan Kwak
  Jung-Min Hwang
  Jun Kunimura
  Hwan-hee Kim
  Woo-hee Chun
  Do-yoon Kim

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