I watched The Wailing after hearing a lot of positive reviews about it from Korean variety cast members. I was intrigued why they all seemed to know about this award-winning horror movie. I was impressed to learn that it was screened in Cannes and received top honors at the Korean counterpart of the Oscars. I may be part of the minority here, but the movie bored me to tears and raised my blood pressure multiple times out of frustration. I was so relieved to finish it after five sittings — FIVE!
Synopsis: Jong Goo (Kwak Do Won) is a policeman in a small town in Korea but his idyllic, routine job takes a drastic turn for the worse when a series of massacres happen in their remote village. The culprits seem to be infected by a mysterious disease that compels them to go crazy and murder their families. When the disease infects Jong Goo’s daughter Hyo Jin (Kim Hwan Hee), his investigation leads them to a Japanese man who is rumored to be an immortal ghost.
I had high expectations when I started watching The Wailing. After all, the film bagged the Grand Bell Award for Best Supporting Actress, Best New Actress, Cinematography, Recording, Lighting and Editing in 2016, as well as other accolades from different award-giving bodies. I do agree that the film deserved awards for these technical aspects but I really wasn’t a fan of the storytelling method, or the general message of the film.
Spoilers Ahead! You have been warned
First off, I could not find myself at any point of the film, rooting for Jong Goo. He was a police officer who slacked off on his job, failed to follow procedure, bullied those whom he perceived to be weaker but at the end of the day, he was a coward — plain and simple.
Tell me if this makes sense. Jong Goo and his buddy had every opportunity to arrest the Japanese man when they found plenty of evidence in his house (of course, the manner in which the search was unwarranted could be a source of technicality but they could have acquired this prior to their visit, right?) Rather than make the arrest, to at least get the suspect in custody, they leave his house and steal a piece of evidence (Hyo Jin’s shoe) to mull over the implication of the shoe found in the “devil’s” house.
When his daughter starts to act strangely, Jong Goo returns to the house as a civilian and starts going berserk when he finds out that the Japanese man has burned all the evidence in his home. Not only that, he destroys the home and kills the man’s dog and threatens him.
True, I get that as a father, he was frustrated and scared for his little girl. But had he arrested the man in the first place, he would have been free to interrogate him about his knowledge of the massacres, right? How could you root for a person who makes stupid choices at every turn? And this was only the beginning. He also gathers an angry mob with an intent to kill the mysterious stranger, and gets said mob to dispose of his body, making them accomplices in a murder. Brilliant, right?
My frustration at the character cannot be described by mere words alone so if you have the patience, you have to experience the film for yourself.
The film drags on from scene to scene, seemingly hyping up the mystery by leaving clues that make audiences doubt what was established in the beginning. But the storytelling only picks up an hour and a half into the movie, when the film has sufficiently established Jong Goo as a villain in his own right. While the cinematography and the sparing use of the ominous musical score was excellently utilized, I hated the fact that the film’s main intention was not to tell a complete story but rather to mislead and make audiences doubt their choices. By its end, there are more questions than answers and while this technique seems brilliant for some movies, this was not the case for The Wailing.
I felt that the film failed to justify why Jong Goo was the central character of the film, and after sitting through all of his poor choices, it would have been a comfort to at least understand why audiences had to witness his journey when his character was basically the same as he was in the beginning — ignorant and impulsive, only more tainted with blood and violence. By its end, I was ready to pull my hair out and yell, Waeeeee? Waeee??? (Wae is why in Korean)
I get that the film was trying to provoke audiences by misleading them, over and over until they begin to doubt their own judgement, just as Jong Goo was at the end. I get that the film explores the many facets of evil and how the devil manages to deceive good people. In this sense, the film was laudable. Kwak Do Won and Kim Hwan Hee also deserve praise for their remarkable acting in this film. Still, I felt that the strengths of this movie was not enough to merit the dragging pace of film and the lack of rootable lead characters to get audiences invested in it.
All in all, director Hong Jin Na’s The Wailing intended to shock and scare audiences into the various forms evil can take. It compels audiences to explore their own hearts and evaluate what extent they could go to protect someone dear. It took two and a half hours of uncertainty to spring a final surprise on the audience but I felt like it was a futile effort given that the film demolished its central character so effectively that he deserved his ultimate tragic end. To say that I was disappointed in the film would be a major, major understatement. I would like to give myself a pat on the back though for finishing it until the end no matter how many tries it took. That’s commitment for you.