Director Na, Hong-jin catapulted himself into the Korean directing elite with his much lauded debut movie, The Chaser, back in 2008. His follow-up, The Yellow Sea, received more tepid response, but there was little doubt that here was a moviemaker who had the potential to be spoken of in the same sentence as Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. His latest, The Wailing, starts with more than a passing resemblance to Bong’s masterpiece, Memories of Murder. There’s a series of grisly, unexplained murders in a backward-looking (although in The Wailing’s case contemporary) countryside, which is then investigated by ordinary cops – more put-upon locals in uniform than law enforcers – increasingly out of their depth. What appears first as simple murders of passion begins to spread across the village, while an increasing number of people fall victim to a violent – and violence-inducing – fever, including the young daughter of one of the policemen on the case, Jong-gu. A portly everyman and a doting father, he is bewildered by the severity of the crimes (especially so in a hitherto tranquil countryside) and heart-broken by his daughter’s sudden affliction. Desperate to find a cure, Jong-gu (played by Kwak, Do-won, a Na alumnus from Yellow Sea) and his friends latch onto the fact that the fever seemingly started after an unknown Japanese man appeared in the area. The more they delve into the stranger (Jun Kunimura, best known for getting decapitated by Lucy Liu in Kill Bill), the more Jong-gu realizes that the situation may belong more in the realms of the unnatural. Enlisting the help of a charismatic shaman, Jong-gu goes to the extremes to find a solution. Fittingly for the fishing motif that’s so prevalent in the film, however, the more he bites at the problem, the more he seems to be ensnared.
It’s been a while since a Korean film had this kind of craftsmanship and artistic control to match its ambition. In many ways The Wailing is the true successor to the class of 2003 – when A Tale of Two Sisters and Oldboy as well as the aforementioned Memories of Murder were released – with how confidently the visuals are displayed, the themes are interwoven, and the story unfolds. The forebodingly beautiful cinematography nods at Kubrick, the acting is exemplary (including a worryingly remarkable turn from the child actress Kim, Hwan-hee as Jong-gu’s daughter), and most of all the atmosphere of escalating horror that Na captures is impressively unsavoury indeed. The film is a bold departure (or throwback, depending on how you look at it) for Korean cinema in its heavy emphasis on the occult, a theme more associated in the country with the well-worn moralism of its ghost stories and the oft-parodied rituals of harlequin-esque shamans. At well over two and a half hours, The Wailing is a hefty movie, but with its potent mixture of procedural mystery, black comedy and a prevailing sense of dread, it commands attention masterfully for much of the duration.
The one drawback for the film is a significant one that takes the shine off what could otherwise have been a landmark movie. During the course of the film Na throws a number of questions and macguffins up in the air. Who or what is causing the fever? Can the shaman be trusted? Is the Japanese stranger a victim of xenophobia? Who is the nameless girl always hovering around the crime scenes? Or is it all just collective hallucination caused by bad mushrooms? The Wailing takes its twists and turns, apparently answering the questions and overturning expectations. But then it keeps going, reopening closed plot strands and even downright contradicting itself on occasions. It soon becomes apparent that Na isn’t so much interested in telling a self-contained story than an exercise in audience-baiting. All of the elements in the film which were so compelling and enjoyable are not allowed to coalesce together in the end, and the actions and motives of the major characters – the Japanese man, Jong-gu and his daughter, the shaman, the nameless girl – are ultimately rendered disparate, abstract and illogical. The ending is neither closed nor open-ended, but rather wilfully indeterminate, and it’s tempting to think that Na is applying the film’s fishing motif to the audience. Whether it’s an appropriately auteur thing to do, or a self-defeating display of directorial indulgence, is perhaps best left to the individual viewer to decide.