Genre marriage is a tricky and necessarily subtle business, mostly because different genres are designed to evoke different emotions, and combining two or more genres into one piece of cinema has the potential to wreak havoc on the film’s tone, and therefore its overall quality. It’s an impressive feat, then, that Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing incorporates elements of a mystery-thriller, a slapstick comedy, and a supernatural horror film while still maintaining a singular, coherent identity. I wouldn’t say that the film exists as all three of these things at once, but the fact that it even attempts such a broad scope is admirable in its audacity.
Set in a South Korean village isolated from the country’s more populated areas, we follow the exploits of police officer Jong-goo as he investigates a string of murders that plague their community. All the victims were killed by family members who appeared to have gone insane and stabbed them to death, and rashes and sores cover the killers’ bodies. A mysterious Japanese man has recently moved into town, raising questions about what his involvement in these apparent possessions could be. Things take a serious turn when Jong-goo’s daughter falls ill and begins behaving strangely, so he must strive all the harder to get to the bottom of things before his daughter harms herself or their family.
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Despite that disturbing synopsis, the first hour or so of the film’s two and a half hours is primarily comedic, with Jong-goo and his equally incompetent fellow officers bumbling into situations well over their heads and engaging in according slapstick shenanigans. The comedy of the situations come across just fine, even if attuned more to a South Korean sense of humor than a North American one, but what is most surprising is that the film’s transition into the second act is made all the more jarring by its complete abandonment of its sense of humor. It’s not a move that should work, but in one scene the film manages to take a light punchline and shift into a scene of disturbing body horror. From there the film goes full tilt on its supernatural mystery, which is honestly where it is at its best.
More than being about ghostly possessions and the horrific ways in which the supernatural can leave us helpless, The Wailing focuses on paranoia and fear of outsiders and the unknown. The obvious culprit behind the fatal occurrences is the Japanese visitor, but without giving too much away, I can confidently say that you’ll be surprised more than once by how events unfold and what is really at play. I cannot as confidently claim that all the elements jell into a coherent whole that makes total and complete sense by the end, but intelligibility is likely beside the point in light of the film’s awe and stupefaction at the unseen forces of its villainous presences. By the final scenes, expect to be extremely uncomfortable in the best possible way.
The biggest strike against The Wailing is its prohibitive length, which feels unnecessary considering how much of the film is spent telling jokes that feel at odds with the film’s overall tone. The jokes work in the moment and director Na Hong-jin has a miraculous knack from transitioning in and out of comedy seamlessly, but upon reflection those moments seem like padding on a film that is already stuffed with greatness. Variety may be the spice of life, but it is also possible to have too much of a good thing. But if that’s your only takeaway from this review, remember that it’s because The Wailing is a very good thing.