In South Korean genre cinema, it isn’t uncommon to see mash-ups of various styles, tones, and temperaments within the same film. Bong Joon-Ho (SNOWPIERCER, THE HOST), Kim Ki-Duk (MOEBIUS, PIETA), and Park Chan-wook (The Vengeance Trilogy) are probably the best examples of filmmakers constantly blending Eastern and Western sensibilities for audiences around the world. More unsung, however, is Na Hong-jin, which is a shame because his previous genre effort had definitely earned him a spot in the conversation when talking about South Korean cinema on a world stage.

Hong-jin’s feature debut, the 2008 thriller THE CHASER, was an intense, purposefully off-putting bit of action movie nastiness where a pimp tries to track down his missing prostitutes. His follow-up, 2010’s THE YELLOW SEA, was a thoughtful blend of suspense, drama, and action that found a desperate man entering into an uneasy agreement with a hitman.

Cut to this year and Hong-jin’s first attempt at an outright horror film, THE WAILING, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to raves from critics of all walks. Upon its release in South Korea, it became one of the highest grossing debuts for a homegrown production in history. If one notes the time gap between THE YELLOW SEA and the filmmaker’s latest, that’s because he spent six years pulling the ambitious, genre-bending project together. It’s his finest film to date and the rare example of a horror epic. The story is sprawling, dense, and rooted in more influences than you can suss out on a single viewing. It’s also easily one of the scariest films of the year.

In the tiny rural community of Goksung (which is the film’s original and admittedly much better title in South Korea), something is making local residents go mad. In an opening section that’s equally indebted to George Romero’s THE CRAZIES, David Fincher’s SEVEN, and Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (right down to including a pair of comic relief detectives bumbling through their jobs), it’s unclear immediately what’s happening to make people snap and kill their families. It could be a virus of some sort. The media seems quick to blame it all on poisonous, possibly psychedelic mushrooms. It could be spiritual in nature. There’s a suspicion that the town could be haunted by evil ghosts. It could also just be the work of a single serial killer or cultish influencer, and everyone could be wrong about everything. Most people in town suspect it’s tied to a mysterious Japanese man (Kunimura Jun) who arrived shortly before people started dying.

But when one of the local police detectives (Kwak Do-Wan) investigating the rash of grisly, brutal murders realizes that this dark madness has touched his seemingly possessed little daughter, he goes searching for answers in darker places than the initial investigation went. With the Japanese man unwilling to cooperate, the detective reluctantly turns to a shaman (Hwang Jung-Min) to try and exorcise whatever has been afflicting his daughter.

None of this happens immediately. The shaman doesn’t even show up until close to the halfway point of this 156 minute feature, and he’s a main character. That’s not to say THE WAILING is a slow building movie, but it’s certainly a long one. The horror elements aren’t pointless shocks and jump scares. There’s a fair bit of gore (most memorably involving someone getting a rake in the head and another character simultaneously puking up vomit and blood for a very, very long time), but they’re the rare kinds of shocks that inform the story instead of just looking cool. Everything has a purpose and meaning here.

The tension and unease being built by Hong-jin could only barely be cut with a machete. A mystery at heart, each new revelation about what’s going on in the village twists the knife into the viewer’s gut a bit more every time. For a film that’s this lengthy, it certainly has no trouble coming up with either a new, game changing bit of information or an action sequence every few moments. It’s one of the longest films I’ve ever seen to have almost no downtime. It’s positively unrelenting, despite the fact that many of the scenes themselves are quite lengthy. Only a masterful filmmaker could generate that much suspense, and Hong-jin proves to be an expert.

And like most great South Korean genre films, it’s a lot of different things at once. It’s a slasher film, a deadly virus thriller (of sorts), a ghost story, a demonic possession flick, a revenge thriller, a family drama, and even a character study. From moment to moment, it’s impossible to tell where the film will turn next. It’s leads to a more or less inevitable conclusion, but the climax leads to a heartstopping reveal of what’s behind everything.

It’s also a great looking and paced film, probably because it’s shot by Hong Kyung Pyo (who lensed SNOWPIERCER). Every shot of the dreary, rain soaked community exudes menace and enhances the story.

THE WAILING is quite a long sit, but you’ll definitely be rewarded. If  you’re in one of the cities lucky enough to be getting the film this weekend – starting on June 3rd, even though it’s already out in LA – or in one of the cities it expands to in the coming weeks, definitely head to the theatre for this one. It’s old-school, big screen horror done right.

The Wai


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