Mysteries can be a tricking thing. Hanging a story on a nut to be cracked is an excellent device to draw in an audience, but it is just as likely to alienate that same audience if too many loose threads are left dangling or are tied up in unsatisfying ways. It is a high risk high reward proposition; the great mysteries of our time linger for generations (Citizen Kane was, after all, a mystery at its core, alongside many of the great noir films of the era), the bad consigned to ridicule (or, perhaps worse, indifference). For every Zodiac, there’s a Dream House. Next in line to walk this cinematic tightrope is The Wailing, a South Korean import about an unassuming village beset upon by a series of shocking events with no rhyme or reason to their cause, upsetting the sleepy community’s idyllic existence.
Our eyes on the scene are those of Jong-Goo (Kwak Do Won), a local police officer and a bit of a doofus who finds himself thrust into a situation far above his head when a spree of violent murders paralyzes the village. Things grow more complex as a mysterious illness seems connected to the mayhem, all of to corresponding with the arrival of an eccentric Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) who settles into the woods on the outskirts of town. When Jong-Goo’s daughter shows signs of submitting to the sickness and its homicidal side effects, his desire to get to the bottom of the problem intensifies, and the Japanese man just may be the key to it all.
What is perhaps most striking about The Wailing is its length, a sprawling 156 minutes, giving it the distinction of being longer than both Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this year’s gold standard for blockbuster bloat. Yet the story here is relatively contained, a bit of a surprise from writer/director Na Hong-jin. The extra time may not be pumped into some sort of long-gestating generational epic, but it does afford him the opportunity to dig into these characters, their lives and their culture, as well as unfolding the central mystery with a deliberate dread. It is most impressive, then, that The Wailing does not feel long in the tooth; there are cuts that could be made and scenes that could have been trimmed, surely, but nothing feels baldly superfluous or indulgent. Time and energy is poured into a few spectacular suspense set pieces that for the core of the movie’s thriller experience. It does not tread any particularly new ground (the film’s standout sequence, where Jong-Goo and his partner investigate the Japanese man’s creepy cabin in the woods with the prospect of being discovered looming overhead is pretty boilerplate thriller stuff), but it executes the genre’s tropes with confidence and style.
The Wailing comes on the heels of a burgeoning culture of Korean horror/thrillers, from Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy and its crown jewel Oldboy to more recent efforts like Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil. There are colors of these movies throughout Na’s film, but he perhaps finds the most kinship with another fellow countryman, the stylish and fearlessly unique Bong Joon-ho. The Wailing has a bit of a penchant for slapstick and comedy (even thunderclaps are positioned with optimum comedic effect) that surely would be familiar to anyone who has seen Snowpiercer or his seminal monster movie The Host (with the latter sharing a similarly bumbling protagonist to this film), and the mystery crime thriller aspects of the storyline certainly hearkens back to Memories of Murder. Na could easily have let this film become a carbon copy of Memories of Murder, but he uses his influences with grace, subsuming them into his own style, a launchpad to something entirely his own. The labyrinthine story twists upon itself, gleefully turning expectations on their heads as the plot zags when all signs point to a zig. His sense of stakes, shrewdly centered around this one man’s need to save his daughter, bridges the existential threat into the more personal sphere. Jong-Goo’s screams (wails, even) as his daughter succumbs may embrace the melodramatic (another trait he shares with Bong Joon-ho), but the emotion underlying it is genuine. A lesser director could have slipped while trying to reconcile the melodrama, the comedy, the suspense and the horror. Na Hong-jin is not a lesser director here, and is more than up to the task.
If there is a weakness to be found in The Wailing, it would likely be laid at the feet of some of the more extreme plot machinations in its third act. This is a case where the running time works a bit to its detriment; there are probably one or two too many plot twists in the latter stages that serve to muddy the waters of the climax a bit, and could easily strain the film’s credulity. And with a bit of a bumbling fool at the center, one could theoretically find him or herself falling beyond the suspension of disbelief. However, the quality of The Wailing sees itself through these minor critiques, offering a moody and satisfying mystery with a flair for suspense, excellent cinematography (this film could be a manual for how to shoot the rain-soaked countryside) and gratifying father/daughter relationship that provides the stakes a film like this needs to resonate and carry itself through its two hours and nearly forty minutes without ever wearing out its welcome. The Wailing is a film destined to come and go from American cinemas with little fanfare, but it is just the sort of film that can make going to the theater to check out a virtual unknown such a vital and deeply rewarding experience.