'The Wailing' ('Goksung'): Cannes Review

'Wailing' still - H 2016
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Korea
A darkly unsettling story about evil is masterfully told.

A mysterious stranger brings death to a village in Na Hong Jin’s Korean scare-fest.

As dark and pessimistic as the rest of South Korean thrill-master Na Hong Jin’s work, The Wailing (Goksung, a.k.a. The Strangers in France) is long and involving, permeated by a tense, sickening sense of foreboding, yet finally registers on a slightly lower key than the director’s acclaimed genre films The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010), both of which also got their start in Cannes. Still there are enough edge-of-seat scenes, pathetically human characters and spectacular atmosphere in this Fox International production to entrance genre fans on its U.S. release by Well Go in early June, with other territories to follow its bow out of competition on the Croisette.

The story of rampant evil is triggered by a mysterious stranger (played with zen-like aplomb by Kunimura Jun of Kill Bill) who arrives in the small South Korean town of Goksung. Known with great political incorrectness simply as “the Jap,” he sets up house deep in a spooky woods and keeps his distance from the townsfolk. When an unknown fatal illness begins covering the population with rashes and boils and unleashing their most aggressive instincts, the Jap is blamed. Xenophobia? Superstition? Ghosts, maybe? It will take the viewer two and a half tense hours to find out, but there is an answer.

Screenwriter Jin’s greatest invention is not one of the monsters that prowl around this tall tale, but local cop Jong-gu, who is played with a startling mixture of comic bumbling and intense anguish by Kwak Do Won (The Yellow Sea). Looking like a confused panda, the affectionate but cowardly fellow allows his happy family life with his daughter, wife and mother-in-law to get in the way of law enforcement. Their insistence that he have breakfast before leaving for work makes him late for the first important set crime scene.

A woman and her husband have been discovered in their shack, the victims of grisly murders that are apparently the handiwork of a relative who has eaten some magic mushrooms and gone berserk. At least that’s the hypothesis. The murderer sits outside bathed in blood and too shocked to talk. Scaredy-cat Jong-gu makes a fool of himself on this and the next occasion, when a woman’s house burns down and more people are killed. He is too timid to even restrain the fright-mask owner.

Even worse awaits him in his dreams, when he wrestles with an inhuman, devilish creature. A local poacher has seen the thing running around the forest on all fours and devouring a deer raw. With a surprising show of courage and enterprise, Jong-gu grabs some unwilling reinforcements and goes to investigate, stumbling onto the Jap’s hideout with its black watchdog and secret rooms. Still one feels there is more here than seems obvious.

The story shifts gears when his beloved daughter Hyo-jin (accomplished young actress Kim Hwan Hee) falls sick and begins to act aggressively. His personal involvement in the murders finally makes him turn serious about solving the crimes, which become more and more metaphysical.

As evil engulfs the village, none of the characters seem immune to its seething contagion as they look for the meaning of their Job-like suffering. What sin did they commit for all this to happen? The film opens on a quote from St. Luke in the Bible, and a young Catholic deacon arms himself in his belief in God, apparently to little effect. Then there is the mysterious young woman in white (Chun Woo Hee) who haunts the town in a role cloaked in ambiguity. Angel or demon? No easy answers here, making it as hard for the audience to decide as the poor hero, whose very life depends on making the right choice.  

Jin expertly swings the film’s dark set pieces between the teeth-chattering and the absurd. When Jong-gu’s mother-in-law calls in a shaman of “high repute” to perform an exorcism and rid the house of evil spirits, a trippy young man in a ponytail and turtle neck (Hwang Jung Min, star of South Korea’s box-office powerhouse Veteran) turns up behind the wheel of a new car. Despite his unlikely appearance, however, he’s quite accomplished performing a “death hex” ritual with flashing swords and animal sacrifice. His flamboyant performance is superbly intercut with his nemesis’s own bloody ritual, and the back-and-forth editing generates sheer electricity. Later, skillful editing and handheld camera work draw the viewer into a riotous zombie fight, another of the film’s highpoints, again showing off the director’s ability to heighten the tension of a scene while using comic relief.

The vivid natural settings create a strong sense of atmosphere. Hong Kyung Pyo’s (Snowpiercer) dreamy cinematography glides over the rain-drenched countryside and shimmering mountain ranges, while Lee Hwo Kyung’s production design chooses the road of realism, cluttering the less-than-scenic shantytown with tons of everyday objects.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (out of competition)
Production companies: Side Mirror, Fox International Production (Korea) in association with Ivanhoe Pictures
Cast: Kwak Do Won, Hwang Jung Min, Kunimura Jun, Chun Woo Hee, Jo Han Chul,
Kim Hwan Hee, Jang So Yeon, Heo Jin
Director-screenwriter: Na Hong Jin,
Executive producers: Robert Friedland, John Penotti
Director of photography: Hong Kyung Pyo
Production designer: Lee Hwo Kyung
Costume designer: Chae Kyung Hwa
Editor: Kim Sun Min
Music: Jang Young Gyu, Dalpalan
World sales:  Finecut 

Not rated, 156 minutes