A review of The Wailing

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author: quinn bell  a&c writer


Spooky / Pixabay

This movie will have you wailing… but not really though.

If immersing yourself in the steady unravelling of a small town haunted by superstition, xenophobia, gruesome murders, and unexplained illness sounds like a good way to spend two and a half hours, then look no further than director Na Hong-Jin’s 2016 K-horror film The Wailing. Prepare yourself for a wild ride.  

If you watch the trailer, you’ll be given three warnings: “You must not let your guard down. You must not close your eyes. You must not be tempted.” Take heed and listen, lest you fall victim. 

First thing to mention is that the film is not in English. The Wailing is actually called Gokseong, and it’s Korean through and through (except for the creepy old Japanese man, lurking in the woods). So, unless you’re fluent in Korean, don’t try to multitask with this one. Instead, watch it and the subtitles closely. 

The Wailing is a very long film (run time is 156 minutes). You will be tempted at times to doze off, to check your Instagram, or to find another film to watch. DON’T BE TEMPTED. DON’T CLOSE YOUR EYES. Yes, it’s lengthy. And yes, it can sometimes be slow and seemingly circular. But trust me, if you make it to the last bit of the movie and you’ve kept mostly alert, it really pays off. The movie is also very visually pleasing — and at times disgusting — and it would be a shame to miss it. 

Worse to miss are the little hints and symbols scattered throughout the film that really get you thinking at the end. This is one of those rare opportunities when I can really boast about my religious studies degree. The symbols and foreshadowing in The Wailing are totally based on religious themes and objects, sampling from Christianity and the gospels, East Asian Buddhist traditions, and Korean shamanism. Anyone who has taken Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons from Drs. Bond and Arnal will know — Asian cinema is a powerful platform for talking about the supernatural. Any scary movie that relies on obscure references to religion is good in my books. 

Gokseong has many of the makings of a great horror film: there’s a creepy old man who wants to take your photo, creepy humanoid creatures in loin-cloths eating deer in the woods, and creepy little kids getting possessed and threatening their parents with knives. Some may be disappointed by the movie’s lack of cheap, fun jump scares, but don’t worry, Na Hong-Jin has mastered the slow build up of tension, which grows and grows until it boils over in over-enthusiastic, satisfying, violent releases. Without this cycle of lull and build, Na’s use of violence wouldn’t have nearly the same effect — that’s why movies that are just action and loud music are both kind of boring. 

In the end, the most fun part of this movie is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. You’ll ask what’s real and what isn’t, who you can trust, and (at times) why you’re still watching. After the movie is done, you’ll find that none of your questions have really been answered… Cue: Reddit. The Wailing may be two and half hours on its own, but the time you can spend on Reddit afterward in an effort to understand it is probably infinite. I’ve gone down that hole and I can tell you now, it’s mighty hard find your way out. You can find dissections of the symbolism, in-depth analyses of the characters and plot developments, and a community of people who are just as frustrated and confused and in love with The Wailing as you are. 

For those of you who like this kind of thing, here are some numbers. The Wailing, produced by 20th Century Fox Korea, grossed $51,539,562 globally at the box office. It won thirty-one awards and was nominated for nearly fifty more across twenty-four festivals, including honourable mention at the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival in 2016. The same year, the actor who plays the protagonist, Do-Won Kwak, was awarded Korea’s top star for his role in the film.

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