The Wailing (2016)

Rating: B-

Dir: Na Hong-jin
Star: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, Chun Woo-hee, Jun Kunimura
a.k.a. Gokseong

This had been sitting around for almost a year, having been acquired in error after I confused it with The Sadness. Hey, all depressing Asian titles look alike, amIrite? But an Internet outage cut off the usual streaming sources, and we finally opted to bite the bullet and dive in. This makes it seem more chore than pleasure, but to be honest, a 156-minute running time is rather daunting. I actually checked, and it ranks among the longest mainstream horror films ever. Searching the IMDb for horror with 35,000+ votes, it trails only It Chapter Two at 169 minutes and Grindhouse‘s 191 minutes; the latter is obviously a double-bill. One day, we’ll get round to the 171 minutes of Midsommar‘s director’s cut. I’ll save up some holiday time for that.

I can’t say it all works: feels like there’d be a better hundred-minute movie in here. It definitely runs out of steam before an ending which feels more like a collapse over the finish line than a final sprint. Events take place in rural Korea, where a normally peaceful village is being plagued by a sudden outbreak of violent incidents. Local cop Jong-goo  (Kwak) is struggling to come to terms with it, but it begins to strike close to home when his young daughter Hyo-jin starts behaving strangely, and he fears she may become the next aggressor. A shaman (Hwang) is brought in, and points the finger at an eccentric Japanese man (Kunimura), who lives in a remote, ramshackle house, being the cause. Something must be done.

There are several problems for Jong-goo with this decision, not the least of which being the question of whether they have the right culprit. At times, this feels like a modern update on Witchfinder General, with an outsider being scapegoated for the ills of the community. However, it does gradually become clear that there is something – that word again – very weird going on. Much hangs on whether the outsider is the source of evil, or is actually working to protect the village from it. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t speak Korean, so all communication has to go through a deacon, whose Japanese is imperfect. 

Na does make good use of the running time in terms of bringing in a range of different horror elements. Perhaps the most memorable is a zombie sequence, where Jong-goo and pals have to deal with a re-animated corpse (top), which proves extraordinarily hard to dispatch. Some of the scenes with Hyo-jin are also hard to watch: there are points where she goes full Regan MacNeil, and it’s not pleasant. However, there was too much downtime for me, resulting from Korean shamanic rituals and chit-chat. I think these were intended to create a brooding atmosphere. I only found that partially successful, but must award bonus points for an impressively Debby Downer of an ending. In terms of horror, while The Sadness was like being whacked over the head with a breeze-block, this is more like being suffocated with a pillow. I definitely won’t confuse them any longer.