There’s nothing scarier than not knowing what you should be scared of. “The Wailing” erupts with a string of gruesome deaths in an insular village, but the investigation unleashes a greater terror — that of the paranoid imagination. The plot, scripted by South Korean genre auteur Na Hong-jin (“The Chaser,” “The Yellow Sea”) makes no logical sense whatsoever, but his masterful use of suspense and gore will have audiences on tenterhooks for the entirety of its 156-minute duration. The film, which opens stateside on May 27, scored the eighth largest Korean opening of all time for a local feature and sold to a host of overseas territories, including China.
Na draws on ancient shamanistic traditions to evoke an obscure, primitive realm where violence lurks in nature and at home, and evil takes human as well as supernatural forms. At the same time, he puts western tropes from “The Exorcist,” “The Evil Dead” and even “Outbreak” through the blender, but the cryptic denouement, which delves into the abysmally dark cave of the human psyche, is pure Polanski.
Na’s “The Chaser” remains the definitive Korean serial-killer mystery thriller, while cross-country crime actioner “The Yellow Sea” intensified the writer-director’s aesthetic of violence. Exploring the spirit world for the first time here, Na continues to employ raw, visceral film language but his ideas are philosophical and suggestive. Weighed down by a bloody history of Japanese colonialism, civil war and partition, the scars of the Korean psyche find their way into Na’s film, whether it’s the horror of people being murdered by their own families or the exorcism that serves as its dramatic centerpiece — a likely metaphor for the need to purge ghosts of the past.
The Korean title “Goksung” refers to the rural hamlet where the film is set, but the “Kanja” (Chinese characters) used translates as “the sound of weeping.” Indeed, as the yarn unfolds, the villagers have reason not only to cry but also to scream: A man has stabbed his wife and children to death for no premeditated reason. When Sgt. Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) and his unit arrive at the scene, he’s drawn to the crazed, bloodshot eyes of the culprit. As a spate of similar family murders crop up, the killers are found to be covered in rashes and boils.
Rumors circulate about a middle-aged Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) who arrived just when these incidents occur. A yokel swears he’s a demon he witnessed devouring a deer carcass, while a crazed young woman named Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee) predicts doom in a Cassandra-like fashion, yet Jeon only gets alarmed when his beloved daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) has seizures and starts swearing like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”
On the one hand, the film is a gripping whodunnit, exemplified by a scene of classic Hitchcockian suspense, when Jong-gu makes a frightening discovery while snooping around the Japanese man. At the same time it treads into supernatural territory through nightmarish dream sequences that feel unnervingly real, as animals, whether dead or alive, exert an unusually menacing power. More than 90 minutes go by before a shaman (Hwang Jung-min, “Veteran”) enters the picture, and the traditional exorcism ritual he performs, dominated by the thundering clash of gongs and drums, propels the story to a crescendo of tension and hysteria.
As plot strands led by the Japanese man, the shaman and Moo-myeong come together, instead of clarifying any anything or countering the evil that’s descending on more households in the village, more conundrums emerge. The finale plunges the protagonist into an inferno of doubt and helplessness as all three claim to be a savior from the others’ demonic intentions, yet none seems at all innocent. The religious overtone of their words: “Just believe me and you’ll be saved,” is creepier than the calamities they prophesy.
Audacious casting is instrumental in balancing the film’s shifts between the earthy rural world and its arcane evocations of animism and cult religion, as well as hallucinatory fantasy. In Japanese cinema, Kunimura often cultivated an image of authority and dignity, though he’s also capable of playing calculated characters. While these traits shape his powerful presence, Na also invests him with a primitive and animalistic aura by having him appear nearly naked in the wilderness.
Chun who played a reluctant shaman in “The Piper” and a rape victim in “Han Gong Ju” boasts classical features that are accentuated here to make her look like she’s from another era. Her performance in two key scenes is so chilling yet ambiguous it sends shivers down one’s spine. Hwang, who’s currently at the top of his game playing hot-blooded warriors of justice in such blockbusters as “Veteran” and “A Violent Prosecutor,” toys with that righteous image to blur and confound audiences’ judgement.
To show a community cut off from modern society and still immersed in ancient superstitions, Hong Kyung-pyo, who lensed Na’s and several of Bong Joon-ho’s works, shot extensively in natural light, yielding a dusky, mist-shrouded texture. He evokes a sense of obscurity by showing human figures and clues from afar, without closeups or sharp focus. Mundane objects such as a hairpin, a loincloth or a cardigan serve as intriguing clues that may or may not reveal something ominous.