One imagines the only thing more entertaining than Na Hong-jin’s “The Wailing” was the pitch meeting to investors, if of course the director has to suffer such indignities anymore after directing the wildly popular “The Chaser” and “The Yellow Sea” in his native South Korea. You could argue “The Wailing” is his first attempt at horror, but as has been true of his thrillers so far, they’ve never been easy to classify in one genre or another, and the story of a policeman whose daughter seemingly become possessed while a string of murders plagues their small village is no exception, even if it is exceptional in every other way.
A two-and-a-half hour epic that never leaves the confines of the lakeside community of Gokseong, “The Wailing” marries two of Asia’s most popular types of stories – the crime procedural and the creepy little girl chiller – as if to enliven the conventions of one genre with the conventions of another, a formula that works far better than it should in Na’s capable hands. His protagonist, Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), isn’t as competent, usually asleep when called to a crime scene, though he can be forgiven somewhat as he becomes haunted by vivid nightmares that keep him awake into the wee hours. Yet it is not the blood-splattered walls of the crime scenes he visits that are inspiring the terrifying visions in his head, or at least not in the way you might think, told by one of his colleagues to take note of a Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who has just arrived in town as a potential suspect, having heard rumors that he killed elsewhere. That theory is further pushed by another mysterious figure, a young woman named Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee) who also begins to show up at the same places Jong-gu does and suggests the fisherman is stalking him.
Between finding a shrine of pictures inside the fisherman’s home of his family and the sudden withdrawal of his daughter, who begins having nightmares herself, Jong-gu sets out to evict the fisherman, yet it becomes clear this and ridding his daughter’s suffering might not be achieved through earthly means. It is at this point that “The Wailing” starts to get as crazy as its lead character becomes and is all the better for it. The small-town milieu proves crucial for grounding the film, where small oddball touches at the outset such as Jong-gu’s fastidious wife’s libido and casual conversations about adult diapers lay the groundwork for larger, wilder plot twists later. Whether taking on the form of a brutish action film or a religious-tinged psychological thriller, the skill and boldness of Na give “The Wailing” a consistency it likely wouldn’t have otherwise, eager to entertain even if it doesn’t entirely add up plotwise.
Yet there’s value in keeping the audience and the characters similarly bewildered – applying too much exposition to a world where shamans are called in to battle nefarious spirits would’ve damned it – and Na confidently creates a mood with indelible imagery that will stick far longer than any minor nitpicks. In the case of “The Wailing,” the Devil isn’t in the details. He’s having far too much fun elsewhere.
“The Wailing” will open in limited release on June 3. A full list of theaters and dates is here.