Just when it seemed that the premier ‘00s national cinema for delivering international audiences into darkness was ready to find the light, Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing is here to raise some cain. With its bounty of sensory delights and cavernous, existential troughs, it warps its style so far past the safety regulation that South Korean cinema feels just about covered in full for a good decade or more. Swaggering and shaggy, The Wailing is a vibrant devil-in-a-new-dress tale of great lateral expanse and gothic grandeur, a wonderfully devilish repository of human foibles and elemental disturbances. It also offers a deep descent into humanity’s awkwardly slovenly attempts to fumble through traumatic and unexplainable events as grandiloquent gloom meets its mortal enemy: human imperfection.
Although almost histrionically beautiful at times, this is no slick masterpiece, nor is the sloppiness of the visual style anything but purposeful. The fascinatingly untidy mise-en-scene is evocative of a film that unmoors itself from stable emotional reactions to situations that befuddle any intelligent or practiced repose. Primed with mystery and menace, this is no piston-like race through narrative but a mood piece about the pathetic human beauty of a location at once pitilessly quotidian and peerlessly mythic, a neighborhood that can be home at once to unspeakable evil and a sloppy, vaguely sad cop tripping over himself to achieve even the laziest semblance of professionalism.
Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak) is hopelessly over his head in his rural South Korean mountain town (if this is in fact a Korean South Park after all, and certain moments are hardly far away from it). Stumbling seems a daily routine for him, but his peace becomes particularly unattainable once this town is besieged by curious happenings that suggest a devil or a demon afoot. When the malevolent Machiavellian creature finally reveals himself, it is a moment of carnival barking glee wrapped in soul-deep, skin-etching horror, a defiant concoction that not only mirrors the film but also likely mimics Hong-Jin’s own joy knowing how successfully he’s succeeded in defeating our reason and deflating our desire to understand. In this correspondence between human fragility and almost antediluvian terror, any stable place to stand your ground or decompress physically or emotionally seems legitimately unattainable.
Morbidly playful, the comedy in The Wailing is also deeply humane, serving as a schism away from the typically metallic hollowness of the police procedural genre. Instead of a linear progression through conflict and resolution, cause and effect, the queasy comedy perches the film on an uneasy tonal balance between farce, tragedy, and terror. Our emotional interpretation of any individual moment is anything but carefully circumscribed to one pre-assumed reaction. Hong-Jin’s film thrives on the possibilities of a disfigured tone trying to stitch itself back together, the director stabbing a new bloody lesion into the production with every off-kilter tonal digression. A moment that, for an American film, might elicit mortal terror, is, in The Wailing, a catalyst for a nervous chuckle or a moment of silent reflection, even a bodily fluid joke. The tone constantly vandalizes itself to astoundingly disarming effect. Because every scene can play out any way, the entire film feels like one giant exercise in gloriously unmediated potential energy.
Never deploying tonal confusion for its own sake though, The Wailing is instead a pointed riposte to the social bylaw that emotions are hermetically sealed from one another. It is not only tonally wobbly but morally unmoored. There is no one acceptable temperament beset by a morass of improper ones, largely because there is no one singular temperament, un-intercepted by others, to begin with. Melancholy, amusement, and fright collude in imperfect harmony, each not alternating pride of place but bleeding into one another until compartmentalizing emotions into vials is revealed as fragile at best, outright fraudulent at worst. The Wailing pulls feeling up by its roots, decomposes and transgresses boundaries, and ultimately cascades into a wonderful downward spiral of polyphonic sensations vying for control of your reaction to tragedy and the unknown. Rather than singular moments of emotional enormity that each follow one tonal trajectory to their logical, rational, conclusive endpoints, emotional tangents are The Wailing’s very animus, its life force found in the fount of daily life itself. It’s a defiling scalawag of a film.
It’s also beautiful, the boldface vibrancy of the panoramic images priming us for the vistas of supernatural dread to come. But they also belie the palpable intimacy of small people trying to find sanity in a valley – a troublemaking, primeval void – matched in mischief only by the film itself. The epic scale of the film is a statement to how little we truly know about our place in the world, a theme driven home by the film’s jittery defiance of any one resting place. The creeping sense that over the hill might lie some awareness of self is no match for the festering growth of realization that the most perplexing entities of all are our own sweaty, floppy tumbles through events we like to imagine handling with elegance and exactness. Note-perfect cross-cutting during the climaxes invokes procedural-level precision and perfection, every moment planned out for maximum impact. Yet the handcrafted sloppiness of the film defies this pristine aura with a primordial charge of sheer human silliness. The film wields a hammer that is constantly unexpectedly hitting its neighbor in the head like some demented screwball routine, so much so that we don’t notice how insidiously it’s actually hitting the nail on the head and hammering it into our coffin the whole time.
It’s nothing so crude as a watching a parody casting a hapless incompetent as the lead in a theoretically iron-clad potboiler, but The Wailing delights in stepping over itself when we expect a gallant stride through exposition and a relaxed repose into post-climax. Equal parts chill-out film and out-and-out chiller, it thrives on contradictory vibes as the film establishes a tone piecemeal out of relaxed anecdotes that double as deliberate gestures of baleful anticipation. The low-key emptiness of event approximates a false restfulness actually humming a discordant tone that doesn’t so much belie the sinister grin in the film’s dark heart as buttress its slow-burn doom. Even the most disheveled moment is a threat to our reason, one frayed patch in a tattered quilt of human experience that eludes classification, provoking reflexes that we can only contemplate in quivers and shudders and cognitive dissonances and never define in words. The Wailing is an intimate glimpse of humans thrown into sudden awareness that their place in the world really is much less assured than they thought just five minutes ago.