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(Movie Review) 'The Wailing': Na Hong-jin's masterpiece thriller with depth

2016/05/09 11:00

By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, May 9 (Yonhap) -- "The Wailing," also known as "Goksung," is the first film from director Na Hong-jin since the 2010 crime thriller "The Yellow Sea."

   Na's long-delayed return to the film scene, which has its world premiere in South Korea later this week, is nothing less than a unique masterpiece thriller that hasn't been seen before.

It heralds the birth of another giant in the Korean film industry after such renowned filmmakers as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Ryu Seung-wan, Kim Jee-wun, Lee Chang-dong, Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo.

A still from the Korean film "The Wailing." (Yonhap) A still from the Korean film "The Wailing." (Yonhap)

Na took the breath away of audiences with the speedy plot development of his two previous thrillers "The Yellow Sea" and "The Chaser (2008)," but in his latest flick the tension builds slowly, with the increase in suspense and intensity occurring throughout the movie's 156-minute running time.

"The Wailing" starts with the mysterious killing of members of the same family in the tranquil rural village of Gokseong, in South Korea's South Jeolla Province.

Upon arriving at the scene with his teammates, a meek police officer named Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) is frightened to see the suspect leaning on a pillar of the house where the family lived as if he is insane, with strange red boils all over his neck and face.

That was just the beginning of the killings that drive the peaceful village into mayhem. Police conclude that the deaths are the result of the people's collective addiction to poisonous wild mushrooms based on test results from a hospital. However, rumors begin to quickly spread that a newcomer to the village -- a strange Japanese man who always kills time fishing -- is the source of all these incidents.

A still from the Korean film "The Wailing." (Yonhap) A still from the Korean film "The Wailing." (Yonhap)

Jong-gu also comes to fully believe the rumors after his encounter with a mysterious woman named Mu-myeong (Chun Woo-hee) because she said she saw the man killing the victims. He then conducts an unauthorized search of the man's remote home on the mountain along with one of his teammates and finds what he believes is evidence to the killings.

As his daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes severely ill, showing symptoms similar to those of the victims, however, Jong-gu visits the house again and goes on a rampage destroying everything. Desperate to save his daughter, Jong-gu brings to the town a famed, Seoul-based shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min) so he can carry out the ancient Korean shamanic ritual of "gut."

   Il-gwang performs the "gut" as if he is possessed to the tune of a traditional Korean drum beating with Hyo-jin wailing and becoming violent in the courtyard of Jong-gu's house. This is where the film erupts into action after a slow-paced one hour dedicated to describing the spooky atmosphere of the tragedy-hit village and the stranger's home rather than developing the plot.

A still from the Korean film "The Wailing." (Yonhap) A still from the Korean film "The Wailing." (Yonhap)

The film's greatest virtue is its intriguing and unpredictable story. The second half has the audience unsuccessfully attempting to figure out who is the evil behind the mysterious deaths again and again till the end.

On top of that, Na leads audience into the depth of great arthouse films, delving into the human mentality of continuously doubting things even when seen firsthand, and easily believing suspicions that can be mistaken or insubstantial.

For this, the movie begins with subtitles quoting phrases from the Bible: "They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." This is what Jesus said to his disciples as they did not believe his resurrection from death.

The film's characters are toyed with by the demon, who uses such human mentality, behaving rashly based on their insubstantial beliefs.

Besides the Gospel of Luke, the filmmaker crammed his film with clever Christian motifs such as a scene reminiscent of the famous chapter in the Bible where Peter denies Jesus three times before a rooster crows and the demon shows a trace of a nail through the middle of his palm in the final scene.

A still from the Korean film "The Wailing." (Yonhap) A still from the Korean film "The Wailing." (Yonhap)

The film's combination of the beautiful scenery of the rural village, a crime thriller and religious elements from the East and the West, including Korean folk shamanism, Christianity and Catholicism, serves to add to the shady and creepy atmosphere of the town.

Its seamless mixture of different movie genres -- crime thriller, mystery, fantasy, zombie thriller -- is expected to lead to its box office success.

The film is set to open in local theaters on May 11. It was invited to the Out of Competition category of the 69th Cannes Film Festival on May 11-22.

sshim@yna.co.kr

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