Film Review: The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, 2016)

by Jason Suzuki

When The Chaser came out in 2008 it was a breath of fresh air. The directors of the film renaissance were to continue producing great work but it seemed the Korean thriller was becoming dull and derivative of popular imports like Memories of Murder and the films in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy. Na Hong-jin's film about a pimp searching for one of his missing girls shared the sense of excitement one got when watching the above mentioned films for the first time but brought with it a unique sensibility soaked in pessimism. His follow up The Yellow Sea was another thriller and a continuation of his aesthetic and world view but more importantly it maintained the level of quality from his debut. With The Wailing Na reinvents himself rather than the trends of his contemporaries and in the process has made an epic mood piece which pushes the boundaries on genre much like the singular masterpiece Save the Green Planet!.

While being a completely different type of film from his previous two, the constant in his work so far is that Na places truly ordinary people into difficult genre premises. The clumsy and inelegant fight between the pimp and the serial killer in The Chaser and the bungling of the murder in The Yellow Sea are perfect examples of the refreshing way Na is able to flip familiar elements through the ill-fated averageness of his protagonists. Kwak Do-won's local police officer Jong-goo fits this tradition through and through. He spends as much time just trying to keep up with the string of deaths hitting his country side town as he does trying to figure things out. Xenophobic rumors of a Japanese man living out in the woods (Jun Kunimura), a brief encounter with an eye witness to one of the murders (Chun Woo-hee), and the involvement of his daughter which forces his family to bring on the help of a shaman (a brief but scene-stealing Hwang Jung-min) create a labyrinth which Jong-goo can barely navigate.

Jong-goo's investigation/attempt to save his daughter is more of a descent in which he struggles to play a part in. His agency is the product of countless manipulations. The film just as easily crosses genre boundaries as it does the line between pathos and bathos. Korean films have become known for the surprising way clashing tones can be mixed together but The Wailing attempts to mix disparate elements that most other filmmakers would try to make purposely jarring to work, but Na's confidence and propulsion of plot make it seamless. The supernatural elements blend in well with the small town setting. The idea of the absence of something acting as proof of something else is the core of the film, characters must deal with outside pressures as well internal struggles to make sense of a world filled with situations our of their hands.

Na Hong-jin took his time with this film. From pre-production to post (even spending over a year on the editing process), his labors show as this film is extremely well thought out and put together. The lack of frills of its design calls attention to the subtly complex chiaroscuro employed by Na and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo. Having previously worked on such films as SnowpiercerMother, and Save the Green Planet! Hong's use of shadow and the obscuring of characters is a visual representation of the constant evil and dread coursing through the film. Playing into the suspicion and confusion of its characters' xenophobia. His use of light that strains to be seen through the darkness is an evolution of the visual ideas he brought to Sea Fog.

The other standout aspect to the craft of the film is the editing. Na cross cuts between the shaman performing what should be called a performance rather than a ritual and the Japanese man doing likewise but on a smaller, private scale. The sequence is an uncomfortable orgy of sounds and fire meant to evoke a physical response beyond the intellectual engagement of the act of Na's juxtaposition. The expert use of back and forth is used once again during the film's finale and will turn out to be the sequence worth re-watching as it is Na using editing to create thematic meaning rather than visual meaning.

Despite not having much screen time Hwang Jung-min is a delight as the shaman. His performance is physical to match the cacophony of the score that introduces his character. He appears late into the film but Hwang brings wonderfully plays against type yet retains the charm and energy which he used to elevate lesser outings like The Himalayas and A Violent Prosecutor. When working with a strong material he gets to shine even more. On the outside of the community depicted in the film are both Jun Kunimura and Han Gong-ju's Chun Woo-hee. 

For the second year in a row Well Go USA have picked up a film for US distribution before it even had its premiere at Cannes or having seen the film. Last year it was Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin and this year they have done it again by trusting in a filmmaker to consistently have a vision and craft to see it through. Once again Na proves he can take familiar elements, like the bumbling Korean police officer, and make them entirely his own.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.