Jong-gu (Do-won Kwak) is a police sergeant in a small rural village somewhere in the Korean hills. His is a quiet life, it would seem. But not exactly an easy one. He's known locally for being something of a clumsy oaf. At his job he's ridiculed by workmates and superiors; at home, his mother-in-law rules the roost. The only person who shows him respect is his pretty young daughter Hyo-jin (Hwan-hee Kim). It's plain to see they adore each other.
But suddenly he's required to do more than eat, smoke and bungle his way through life when locals start going crazy in isolated incidents involving supposed crimes of passion and house fires. Initially Jong-gu suspects that folk are tripping on a mutant strain of wild mushrooms. After all, he's found a cluster of them at one crime scene and, in his naivety, this explains the wild eyes, gibberish talking and severe rashes suffered by each murderer.
However, pal Byeong-gyu has other ideas. He believes that all of these strange occurrences coincide with the arrival of a Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) who's recently moved into a shack in the hills. He even claims that the newcomer raped the woman believed to be responsible for the most recent killings, turning her crazy and covered in a nasty rash as a result. Jong-gu decides to investigate further: "the rash is the link here", he deduces.
At the remains of the burned-out house where multiple stabbings occurred just a couple of nights earlier, Jong-gu is met by a mysterious woman (Woo-hee Chun) who also points the finger of blame at the Japanese stranger. She claims to have been told he's a ghost who'll suck your blood dry. When asked if she witnessed the killings, she claims she did. But, as Jong-gu turns his back on her, she's gone as suddenly as she arrived.
Pointed towards enlisting the help of local shaman Il-Gwang (Jung-min Hwang), Jong-gu eventually determines to conduct a search of the stranger's abode. And finds some pretty revelatory stuff there in its owner's absence.
The search for the elusive stranger intensifies when Hyo-jin becomes the latest victim of the inexplicable illness, developing a rash and showing signs of insanity while spewing some of the most profane dialogue to come from a child actor's mouth since THE EXORCIST.
Can Jong-gu and Il-Gwang find out just what's going on in time to save Hyo-jin?
At 149 minutes in length, there's obviously a lot more to THE WAILING than the above premise suggests. Above is merely what you need to know, without spoiling events for you. But in truth, this latest film from writer-director Hong-jin Na - the guy also responsible for THE CHASER and THE YELLOW SEA - is epic in scale, not only in terms of length but when considering the themes it tackling within its surface-veneer of darkly witty entertainment.
Family honour, professional obligations and social mores are always big on the agenda in Korean films. That's no different here. But we also get a subtext of racism - the suspicion with which the outsider is considered - and an examination of a society struggling to find the equilibrium between older, traditional values and the ways of modern life (there's a great deal of superstition versus rationality going on here).
For those not arsed about reading into Na's intelligent, heady script, you'll be pleased to learn that THE WAILING also works extremely well when taken at face value: if you're looking for a film that engages, amuses, warms, shocks, scares and keeps you guessing, then this will do the trick. It's also quite painterly at times; Kyung-pyo Hong's beautiful widescreen compositions put the luscious Korean countryside to fine use at regular intervals.
Performances are agreeable throughout; in particular, Do-won Kwak makes for a really likeable lead. We fret for him when his daughter takes ill, even if her obscene rants are often amusing. Na's balancing of offbeat humour, human drama and jolting horror works best during the show-stopping exorcism scene that ensues.
THE WAILING is being hailed by some as a modern masterpiece. In many ways, it's brilliantly made. But it's not perfect. I don't mind a long film if its running time is justified: THE WAILING drags at times because there's at least, say, 30 minutes of the film that aren't really necessary. Also, it has to be said that the storytelling is a little muddled. You'll probably be having too much fun at the time to notice it, but if you think back on the film afterwards - especially the final third - you'll start picking holes galore in the plot and the confused manner in which it unfurls.
But, all things, considered, these are minor beefs. Just looking back on the visual strength of the film, the winning performances and the tremendous set-piece scenes ... it's one that you really do need to see, at least once.
Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment bring THE WAILING to UK DVD.
The disc contains a gorgeous 16x9 transfer which adheres to the film's original 2.35:1 ratio. Pin-sharp imagery, clean and clear textures, deep blacks, bright colours ... there really is no room for complaint. Other than, of course, a lot of folk would have been hoping for a blu-ray option too (you'll have to import for that luxury).
Audio is similarly impressive, the original Korean soundtrack receiving the full benefits of a nicely balanced 2.0 mix and a rousing, intelligently separated 5.1 surround alternative. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easily readable at all times.
An animated main menu page leads into a static scene selection option, which affords access to the film via 12 chapters.
There are two bonus features on offer. Alas, both are rather paltry affairs.
"I wanted to make a movie that reflects the current climate of our society" says Hong-jin Na in a disappointingly short featurette entitled "The Beginning of The Wailing". Over the course of just 101 seconds, he comments in narration-style as we watch a combination of clips from the film and behind-the-scenes footage. Seeking to reveal the director's inspiration behind making the film, this offering is far too fleeting to provide anything of real insight.
"Making Of" is not much longer - 4 minutes and 41 seconds to be precise. That's not much exposure when we're hoping to get privileged access to what was a 180-day shoot. The director and several cast members speak to the screen in individual sound-bites in-between more footage taken from the on-location shoot, but this is comes across as little more than a vanity piece. What a shame, as I imagine an in-depth look into the making of this film, or perhaps a full interview with Hong examining its many themes and subtexts, would've been engrossing.
The disc opens with trailers for IP MAN 3 and POLICE STORY: LOCKDOWN.
THE WAILING is a fantastic film which builds to a rather startling finale which will stay with viewers for a good while afterwards. It's a warm, engaging, occasionally funny and ultimately thought-provoking picture. While it's not perfect (see above), it does come highly recommended - and it looks great on this UK DVD release.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment|