Directed by: Hong-jin Na.
Written by: Hong-jin Na.
Starring: Do Won Kwak (Jong-Goo), Jun Kunimura (The Stranger), Kim Hwan-hee (Hyo-Jin),Woo-hee Chun (The Woman of No-name), Jung-min Hwang (Il-Gwang), So-yeon Jang (Jong-Goo’s Wife).
In movies, as in everything else, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. The Korean film The Wailing is mostly a good movie – but it’s hurt more than a little bit because it’s trying too hard. The film is essentially a thriller with horror elements, but it runs over two and half hours, which is more time than its story needs to tell. To try and quell the petering out of the plot, writer/director Hong-jin Na stages nearly every scene to be some sort of show stopper – big moments, big action, etc. – and so the movie never quite settles into a rhythm. There is a lot about the film that works – more important than anything, the ending is a stunner – but the film could have been better had it been a little bit less of everything.
The film centers on a police detective – Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak) in a small mountain town, who is charged with investigating an illness that started to spread through the town with the arrival of a Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) – a sickness that causes an outbreak of murderous violence – before making them nearly catatonic before they die. Jong-Goo and his associates – another detective and a Priest – start to try and piece together the mystery – everything coming back to either The Stranger. When Jong-Goo’s own daughter starts to show signs of the illness herself, he becomes more panicked – and more determined than ever to find out what is happening, and stop it.
It is the opening scenes in the film where I think most of the cutting could be done in the film. Like many mystery films, The Wailing provides multiple false leads, red herrings, and characters whose motivations we cannot decipher until later – although in The Wailing, there seems to be too many of them. The film also has a kind of weird sense of humor in these scenes – portraying Jong-Goo as almost a bumbling idiot for a while (to be fair, this seems to be something that often confuses me in Asian films in general – Kurosawa has moments of humor I don’t get – and Korean films in particular – I certainly recall a few over-the-top comic moments in a film like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, that seemed strange to my Western ways). The film overdoes things a little bit with the mysterious characters – after all, there is the Japanese Stranger, the Woman with No Name (Woo-hee Chun) – who in retrospect, could have saved a lot of runtime simply by being less cryptic – and an shaman, Il-Gwang (Jung-min Hwang), who is hired to try and cure Jong Goo’s daughter – but may not be entirely trustworthy himself.
My problems with the film aside, there is no denying that when the film hits its stride – in the last hour – it never really lets up, and the end of the film is a pessimistic stunner. The film really is a slow descent into hell – turning the comic character of the detective into a tragic figure, as he watches as everything in his life goes to shit. The filmmaking is top notch – not as stylized as other Korean auteurs like Park-chan Wook or the previously mention Bong Joon-ho, writer/director Hong-jin Na does a good job of building this small town world – rundown, insular, suspicious of outsiders, etc. The film ends as it must – as it has built to – but it’s still a gut punch.
Still, I find it hard to argue that the film could have, and should have been shorter. I’m not usually one to complain about long runtimes (and, in an era where some people will binge watch an entire season of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black over the course of a weekend, I find others whining about them silly more often than not) – but here, it really does seem that Hong drags nearly everything out just a little bit longer than it needs to be – and when the film is over, and you reconstruct the plot in your head, it seems amazing that it took 156 minutes to get there). I meant to see both of Hong’s previous films – The Chaser and The Yellow Sea – but never got around to them. I’m glad I saw The Wailing – it is a superior genre film to be sure. But, what could have been one of the year’s best films at say 120 minutes is instead just a good one at 156 – sometimes less is more, and I cannot help but think that The Wailing may be one of those cases.