Fright Fest 2017 Review #12 – The Wailing (2016)

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Rain of terror

Subgenre:  Possession / Foreign

Summary:  The arrival of a mysterious foreigner in a South Korean village coincides with a series of gruesome murders.

Review:  The Wailing covers so much ground within the horror genre – ghosts, possession, serial killing – that it’s a marvel it works at all, let alone flourishes.  The core story is deceptively simple: mid-level detective Jong-Goo is assigned to investigate a series of brutal killings in his sleepy village, each of them committed by someone close to the victim.  As he gathers information, more and more signs point to a recently immigrated Japanese fisherman.  When Jong-Goo’s daughter begins acting disturbingly, his involvement in the case becomes personal, and he finds himself considering explanations within the supernatural.

Given its dark tone and subject matter, it’s a surprise how colorful The Wailing ends up being, both literally and figuratively.  It’s a beautifully shot movie that uses digital video’s unique assets to their full advantages, establishing a lush green palette during the day and a murky blue one at night, while unafraid to occasionally inject splashes of red and orange.  As for the tone, it’s a masterclass in having one’s cake and eating it too: effortlessly spooky when it wants to be (without a single jump-scare, no less), but also pulling off bits of true-to-life comedy with an uncommon lightness of touch.

Aside from the sturdy script, what holds this collection of genres together is a universally strong cast.  Every character, from the leads to the bit players, gets a bit of shading that elevates them beyond their role in the story.  Take the shaman who’s talked up in the movie’s first half; we naturally assume a wise old spiritualist, but the movie shatters our expectations by giving us a cocky, flamboyantly-dressed young man who is nonetheless well-versed in the dark arts.  Kwak Do-won’s Jong-Goo is a perfectly flexible anchor for the audience, beginning the movie as a somewhat-bumbling local cop but revealing a much darker side when his daughter’s soul is at stake.  But the two best performances come from Jun Kunimura as the Japanese stranger and Hwan-hee Kim as Jong-Goo’s daughter.  The former offers an understatedly sinister embodiment of evil, while the latter transforms from impossibly cute in the movie’s first half to nasty and shockingly adult in its second.

With its sizable (and truth be told, slightly excessive) running time of two-and-a-half hours and ambiguous narrative, The Wailing isn’t for everyone.  Those seeking a tidy resolution will be disappointed, though I felt the ending struck the perfect balance between providing closure and retaining the story’s mystery – not to mention providing some truly haunting imagery.  I can’t wait to see it a second time, which in my opinion is among the best compliments a movie can get.

The Verdict:  Creepy, atmospheric, and well-written, The Wailing delivers as an intelligent, original horror movie.  I give it eight fiendish foreigners out of ten.

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