Film and TV buffs, who have grown weary of Hollywood’s banal commercialism, have found a veritable wellspring of great movies and shows in South Korea, a country whose writers and directors bring unique insights and perspectives. The prime beneficiary of the so-called Korean Wave in entertainment, I believe, has been the horror genre.
Now, most scary movie nerds worth their salt have seen or at least heard of movies like Train to Busan and A Tale of Two Sisters, but 2016’s The Wailing seems to have slipped the popular attention.
In the movie, death comes to a sleepy mountain village called Gokseong (also the original Korean title) in a remarkably brutal fashion. A man has killed his entire family. It is not just a crime, but a crime borne out of unadulterated hatred; it is literally inhuman hatred. Soon, more carnage follows, and every murder appears to be a result of a nasty infection that involves rufescent boils and of course, the propensity for vicious violence towards family members.
The hero, and I use the term loosely here, is a bungling cop called Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), who is taken aback by the recent events, not nearly used to transgressions of this magnitude. He is a cretin, but a sympathetic one. His dumbfounded reaction to the murder scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. He is no saviour, we learn, just an ordinary junior law enforcement officer in a village where evil has arrived.
The blame for the spate of infections and resulting murders falls on a mysterious Japanese stranger, and indeed the script makes it clear there is something fishy about him. But is the hunch of several villagers spot-on or is that their xenophobia coming into play? There is a mysterious kooky woman too on the sidelines, who we first see throwing small rocks at Jong-goo and his partner (the equally incompetent Oh Seong-bok, played by Son Gang-guk). There is no intensity in her throws. It is meant not to hurt, but get attention. Is she really mad or just pretending to be so?
Jong-goo’s daughter also comes down with the same illness. She soon becomes a completely different person from the cheerful, wise-beyond-her-years kid she seemed till now, to something akin to Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
One of the many joys of The Wailing (I know, strange thing to say about a bleak movie chock-full with blood, gore, and misery) is that there is almost always something going on beneath the surface. Its style and visuals belie a subtlety rarely seen in American horror these days, except perhaps in A24 products.
We do not get answers, not truly, until the last ten minutes or so. And the journey to that payoff is utterly, utterly worth it. Despite its formidable length, the movie nails its pacing, and there is always something interesting, horrifying, or revealing to see in every other shot.
The Wailing is a relentless phantasmagoria of disturbing, violent imagery, exorcisms, zombified humans, arcane rituals, and even folk horror. In fact, it stuffs inside its 156 minute-run time probably every horror conceit imaginable, and yet ends up being an acutely effective horror movie which never becomes messy or unwieldy. It is a singular achievement.
Tip: Go into this movie as blind as possible. Skip the trailers, don’t read synopses, and so forth.
Note: Although The Wailing is available on Amazon Prime Video and MX Player, try to find physical media to watch it as there is no original Korean audio version on these streaming services.
Under the Radar is a weekly series that talks about one great movie or TV series that for some reason slipped most people’s attention — flew under the radar, so to speak — and is certainly worth checking out.