Thursday, January 19, 2017

Touch Me And See: Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing

Kwak Do-Won and Jo Han-Cheol in The Wailing.

I’ve spoken before about the blending of genres, tones, and themes that exemplifies the style of directors like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-Ho, and Kim Ki-Duk. It’s a renaissance of cinematic flair that has come to represent the Korean New Wave as a whole for many Westerners since the late 1990s, and results in films that feel – especially to our exhausted, Hollywood-trained eyes – more fresh and vital and surprising than almost anything we produce over here. One of the latest and most emotionally brutal versions of this style might be Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, which swerves from slapstick comedy to supernatural horror with an intensity that might result in whiplash, if it weren’t handled with such care and skill.

Horror cinema is approached differently in Asia than it is over here, and South Korea has its own unique spin on it as well. Although Korean thriller films like I Saw The Devil, Pieta, and the Vengeance trilogy freely employ explicit gore (often to greater effect than Western films), the accepted approach for horror films focuses more on emotional anguish and mental torment than blood n’ guts – although it’s no less sensationalized than the worst we can offer. Combined with the shifting tonality and genre-bending that put South Korean cinema on the map, this makes films like The Wailing sound like they couldn't help but be messy hodgepodges, scattered and incoherent, if not downright irritating. In some unfortunate cases, that’s true – but in the skilled hands of a director like Na Hong-Jin, it transforms a seemingly impossible concept into an unpredictably thrilling and original spine-tingler, whose humour and levity function as pitch-perfect contrasts to its horrific emotional savagery. If I were to express it as a clickbait soundbite, The Wailing is half Prisoners and half Exorcist, with a dash of The Host for good measure – and all of it sings with dreadful intent.

Hwang Jung-min in The Wailing.
The film’s setup is pedestrian enough, providing you with enough recognizable foreshadowing to make you feel prepared for what’s to come – but these setups, like many of the characters within the film, are not to be trusted. Jong-goo (Kwak Do-Won) is a schlubby, slightly dopey policeman and family man in the sleepy rural mountain village of Gokseong, which begins to suffer the effects of a mysterious sickness that produces horrible skin rashes, followed by fits of murderous violence, then stupor, and finally death. It feels very much like a zombie plague is brewing in this quiet, rainy town, and as a viewer you’re given all the recognizable cues to push you towards the assumption that that must be what’s happening – until Jong-goo catches sight of an aging Japanese (Jun Kunimura), newly arrived in town and living in a secluded shack up the mountain, and begins to experience terrifying dreams about the man. Aha, you think – so there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Perhaps this sickness isn’t a contagion, but a supernatural curse. And as Jong-goo begins to piece together the true nature of the threat that is looming over his village – and over his sweet little daughter, Hyo-Jin (Kim Hwan-Hee) in particular – you remain blissfully unaware of how misguided all your assumptions are about what The Wailing is, and where it will take you. It’s a fine example of mystery storytelling that keeps you guessing throughout, and gleefully proves you wrong at every turn. As the credits roll, you’re struck by the desire to start it from the beginning right there and then – but you probably won’t, considering the trauma you’ve just been through.

The Wailing contains its fair share of physical brutality, mostly at the hands of those infected with Gokseong’s sickness, but it deals its most booming trade in supernatural scares, which are enhanced by their deep ties to Korean, Nepalese, and Christian folklore. Na Hong-Jin creates a world in which spirits can be either protective or destructive, and act in these ways not according to relatable human motivations but in the service of their raw primal natures. Jong-goo – for reasons I won’t get into, but which you can probably guess – eventually abandons his skepticism and hires a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to exorcise the problem out of his hometown. When he asks in desperation why he and his fellow townspeople are being assaulted, the shaman (who is purposefully portrayed as a slick, ponytailed, turtleneck-clad huckster) explains by asking, “When you fish, you don’t know what you’re going to catch, do you? You just throw out your bait and see what bites.” This is the volatile threat of The Wailing, a sort of psychic invasion that sends terrifying visions and horrible sicknesses with no understandable reason or motive. There’s no bargaining, no reasoning, no pleading with this sort of evil. It is simply acting on its own chaotic, enigmatic whims, and its capricious essence is perfectly expressed by the unpredictable way the film is constructed.

A trio of fine central performances – from Kwak as Jong-goo, Kim as his (very Linda Blair-esque) daughter, and Kunimura as the stranger – anchor the film’s disparate tones. For the first hour or so, the performances feel larger than life: Kwak plays Jong-goo like he’s in a Scooby-Doo film, constantly eating, mouth agape in dumbfounded shock, stumbling around like a lovable (if oafish) human cartoon; Kim plays Hyo-Jin with painfully overt sweetness; and Kunimura telegraphs bald menace with every stare. What’s remarkable is the way these performances evolve over the course of the film, becoming more naturalistic as the film strays further and further into the outlandish. It’s an amazing shift that makes for deeply compelling drama, as these previously outsized characters begin to respond to their insane situation with subtle, controlled intensity. This, combined with the twists and turns of The Wailing’s story structure, its slippery character motivations, and its balance of tone, is the tricky tightrope that Korean cinema walks – and it’s fascinating (and horrifying) to watch when it’s executed at this level.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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