Cam's Eye Review: THE WAILING (2016) - Whom Do You Trust?

If you go fishing, do you know what you'll catch?" This is the line that jumps out at me where you really don’t quite know what is going to happen next, a feeling which continues to a chilling, harrowing climax in The Wailing.

A brutal multiple homicide leads an oafish local cop (Kwak Do-won) on the track of something sinister after a new Japanese resident (Kunimura Jun) seemingly affects the community of a small South Korean village, Gokseong, with an unusual outbreak of a skin condition that ultimately drives villagers insane and on a killing spree. After certain "mushrooms" are blamed by the media and police, the cop's young daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) falls ill while he investigates to solve the murders and others around him.

Fresh out of competition from Cannes, The Wailing is written and directed by Na Hong-jin, a favorite of the festival. The supernatural thriller gives us the overuse of blood, mud and rain to make this two-and-a-half hour piece engrossing. However, that being said, there were some unusual moments of levity by Kwak as we are taken on an adventure with Sergeant Jong-goo as we get a mish-mash police procedural that sometimes doesn't make logical sense and leaves us with characters we should trust or not.

This particular movie stands out because it gives you an uncomfortable feeling. Very psychological. It's not a traditional horror film in the sense of the word where you get scares that make you jump in your seat. It's simply about a man who winds up doing what he can to save his daughter from an apparent possession by a demon, as a shaman Il-gwan (Hwang Jeong-min) diagnoses. But a mysterious young woman in white named Moo-myung (Chun Woo-Hee) appears which I found confusing as she seems to help but not help -- her motives are unclear as she claims to be a witness of a later family's murder -- especially up to the film's end.

The cinematic scope throughout the movie is very atmospheric, akin to an X-Files episode. But I was put off several times where police mishandled witnesses and suspects, most especially the new Japanese resident not taken in for questioning when he was found with tokens and pictures of the people who have died; marking him as the primary person of interest and serial killer. But was he? A serial killer, that is? I found the blurring of reality and supernatural elements odd as well as the purpose of the strange woman in white. Was this woman's motives clear? I was uncertain, even to the end.

It's hard to take in some of the questionable believability of the characters, in my informed opinion. Granted, I barely know Korean culture and its filmmaking, but I do understand human nature and when something is off we are left to answer certain questions: why is this happening, who is being affected, and are the ancillary characters necessary to the story? If you remember The Exorcist, as this film may remind you of certain elements, you get a feel for what is happening in The Wailing. Does it make sense? In that aspect, it left me wanting a more clear-cut story despite the fishing around.

Yes, fishing around. I said it. And despite an intense scene where the traditional Korean shaman tries exorcising the demon from the cop's daughter, director Na paces and visualizes events with a very keen eye for detail. You feel exhausted as the shaman when the ritual is interrupted -- and almost succeeds -- to make the film end there. But no, it's only halfway through the film!

The Wailing has its moments of charm and humor, especially when the daughter, Hyo-jin, interrupts her father having sex in the backseat of a car with his wife (Jang So-Yeon). But it is the intimate moment with Jong-goo's mother-in-law (Jin Heo) to propel our confused cop to hire a shaman that was given $10,000 to do his thing. How far would you go to save your child? This is Sergeant Jong-goo's mission and focus on solving the unusual murders in the sleepy little village.

I found the St. Luke biblical quote in the beginning a little off-putting, especially when one of the characters, a young man of the Catholic faith (Kim Do-Yoon), is used to little effect although he unmasks the truth near the end of the film. All in all, I have mixed feelings for a script that had promise but leaves you wanting to tie up some loose ends, uncertainties and doubts that linger. It's a good film, visually, with wonderfully lighthearted humor, mixed with horror and suspense.


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