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Far East Extreme: An Exuberant Recommendation for “The Wailing”

Saturday, April 20, 2019 | Opinion

Welcome to another Far East Extreme! If you’ll all allow me a brief aside before we start, it is my hope that some of you may have read a couple of these and found a film you didn’t know about that was worth watching. This is coincidentally the same for me as well! When I prepare for these pieces, I have to balance the time I can watch multiple horror movies (possibly all in one day) to determine if any of them have anything at all “extreme” in them. But describing how much blood or body parts are in a movie is still only half of the equation, and if the film in question ended up being a lackluster snooze fest, or offensive in a way I don’t find entertaining, I’ll still write about the thing, if only to keep to my schedule. After all, when it comes to horror films, it sometimes feels like going dumpster diving for that one last cookie in the package you threw out by mistake. And once in a while, to my delight, I find a nice, chocolatey cookie I didn’t even know was there.

 I came to the Wailing with little to no expectations at all. The last Korean horror film I’d seen hadn’t been very nice, and I’d had a few interesting close calls with gory police procedurals that teased delving into the horrific but never paid off to my satisfaction. For that reason, I was filled with trepidation when I realized this movie was about a cop who investigates crimes in his rural village. Luckily, things quickly got good.

One of the first images of the film is a dude absolutely covered in gore. You see, it seems the whole town is going crazy, and people can’t seem to wait to kill one another. I know the maxim of “less is more” usually holds, but the audience is treated to every detail of every crime, and it’s a joy to see it all. The Wailing boasts impeccable production values from the sets, to the action, to the blood and guts; not so surprising when you see that it was bankrolled by non-other than 20th Century Fox! I know that horror movies are in particular one of the best examples of doing a lot with a little, but it is great when once in a while one gets a budget and knows where to put their money.

“I know the maxim of “less is more” usually holds, but the audience is treated to every detail of every crime, and it’s a joy to see it all.”

As I said before, The Wailing is a cop film in that the main characters are cops investigating a crime, however it becomes obvious after a few scenes that they are clearly out of their depth. Cop Jong-goo (played by Kwak Do Wan) would much rather be at home with his daughter, while his partner seems eager to throw logic out the window and believe the rumors about a strange, mystical Japanese man causing these phenomenon. While there are other plausible explanations for what is going on, as these crimes continue to pile up and the body count keeps growing, they are all eventually put aside in favor of the supernatural. The perpetrators of these crimes, once friends and neighbors, are now insane walking horrors with horrible boils covering their skin and an animalistic drive to kill that makes them seem – almost – like zombies. Let me repeat: this is not a zombie film. The Wailing calls back to many familiar clichés but wisely avoids being trapped by them. If anything, “zombies” in this movie are symbolic the same way as in the original Dawn of the Dead, but not nearly the way you’d expect.

The movie uses its setting well: being a rural town where everybody knows everyone, there are many realistic, almost warm moments between characters that serves as a welcome break from the action. Everyone, even the kids, play their part well; especially Jong-goo’s adorable daughter Hyo-jin, whose transformation drives most of the plot. Starting out as a cute, likeable kid, it is astonishing how the young actress can switch gears so dramatically without any makeup or prosthetics at all. Kwak Do-Wan is a salt of the earth every-man who is seemingly a bit more world-wise than most of his associates, but still has flaws that may prove his undoing. Still, we root for the guy to save his daughter, as well as his village. This film won numerous awards, many of them to Jun Kunimura as the aforementioned Japanese man, though I hesitate to call him the antagonist of the film. Playing a Japanese man in a Korean film, Kunimura’s dialogue is quite limited, but this is an arresting physical performance through and through; it is kudos to this film’s script and directing that one middle-aged Japanese man can become so terrifying.

 So what sets this film apart from any other horror movie we’ve talked about thus far? These wonderful country folk, despite being the salt of the earth, come with a fatal flaw: superstition. This is nicely understated at first but becomes a pretty obvious problem by the end of the first act. Despite tackling pretty heavy themes, the movie is rarely heavy handed, even throwing in some darkly comedic moments (such as the re-occurring hill which everyone seems to fall on). These comical lapses, rather than detract from the message of the plot, give the film room to breathe. To be sure, the tone of The Wailing walks a tight rope with such subtlety that most genre flicks just cannot manage: it is one part gross-out, light familiar horror, and then thought-provoking the next, with a denouement that will leave most viewers guessing until the last moment. Unlike some earlier articles in this series, I’m leaving out crucial details on purpose because it’s a journey that you’d be best served taking without any help. In short, I love this movie; please go and see it.

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.