It is the duty of the police to investigate, calmly and rationally, to obtain evidence, to interview witnesses, to examine a situation fully and prosecute a case based on that knowledge. But what is to be done when a case makes no sense, when rational analysis fails, when the edges of reality and dream and superstition become blurred?
For Sergeant Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) this is such a case, woken before dawn and travelling through the pounding rain to the house where a farmer and his wife have been stabbed over and over, the suspect delirious and unable to speak, his whole body covered in a strange mottling which has driven sanity from his mind.
Sharing a home with his wife (Jang So-yeon), their daughter and his mother-in-law (Her Jin) does not leave much personal space and Jong-gu is not the most capable policeman, his superior officer treating him like a fool, an impression he manages to reinforce by arriving late at a housefire where he is promptly attacked by the blackened woman who has been pulled from the flames.
Found hanged the next morning before the autopsies of those who died in the fire show that they had been stabbed in the same way as those at the farmhouse, Jong-gu’s partner Oh Seong-bok (Son Kang-gook) tells that deaths have been occurring ever since a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) moved to the area, but Jong-gu is dismissive, saying the madness was caused by poisonous mushrooms, but he is having nightmares of a naked old man in the forest eating raw flesh…
Guarding the burned out ruin Jong-gu sees a young woman (Chun Woo-hee) who tells him that those who died in the house had failed to engage a shaman to protect them from a ghost. His nightmares worsening, his daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) is also ill, exhibiting the same rash that the others developed. Is it the mushrooms, as the newspapers say, or is a sinister force haunting Jong-gu and his family?
Set in South Korea’s mountainous Gokseong, rarely seen by western audiences, it is a beautiful green land where spirituality is part of the culture, where it is accepted that spirits walk the earth and houses will be cleansed with blessings and rituals yet where the sky can blacken and unleash terrible, unremitting storms which wash away evidence but not sin, where the discovery of an altar of candles and skulls at a crime scene would cause alarm even were it not beneath a wall of photographs of many who have since died.
Written and directed by Na Hong-jin, The Wailing hovers just beyond the horizon of comprehension, a series of events whose tangential connections never quite align, yet constructed around stories, dreams, rituals and moments of unexpectedly hilarious absurdity it is compelling and sometimes bloody viewing.
Driven by the conviction of a cast whose naturalism grounds the horror, making the whole believable and bringing it right into the home, Kwak Do-Won is an experienced actor across stage, screen and television who previously worked with Na Hong-jin on the 2010 thriller The Yellow Sea who brings an honest desperation to Jong-gu, but special mention is deserved by teenage Kim Hwan-hee, endearing, awkward and unrestrained in her performance.
More meticulously crafted than the vast majority of western horror whose ambition never rises above straight-to-streaming, even at almost two and a half hours the atmosphere is unbroken as it builds towards the extended centrepiece scene of the attempts of the shaman Il-Gwang (Hwang Jung-min) to expel the evil, an exorcism vastly different to the familiar Catholic ritual.
A clash between tradition and modernity, between the safety of the familiar and the fear of the stranger, Jong-gu’s nightmares are never differentiated from the actual events which are occurring, but rather than the film carrying an abstract, dreamlike feel, it becomes as though all of reality has become a horror of gathering strength, waiting for the inevitable moment when the wailing of hopelessness will begin.
The Wailing is available from Monday 30th January from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment