South Korean horror/thriller The Wailing howls with the kind of madness that envelops a community in its fevered grip, driving it slowly but surely to the point of no return.
Opening with an excerpt from the Bible, which the audience should regard as fair warning to brace for a demonic possession at some point, it goes on to shower viewers with plenty of heavy rain and walking around in the forest before the real action starts.
You will need to sit through over an hour of twigs snapping underfoot, charred corpses, bloodshot eyes, burned houses and fleeting glimpses of what looks like a diaper-clad man scurrying around on all fours in the woods, feasting on a bloody dead animal, before the pace properly picks up in the last hour.
Clocking in at a hefty two and a half hours, The Wailing unfolds leisurely, almost repetitively, feeding off a burgeoning sense of dread before culminating in a delightfully delirious exorcism after some rampant misdirection.
We notice all is not well when Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), a bumbling but seemingly well-meaning sergeant, arrives late on the scene where a ginseng farmer, purportedly under the influence of “toxic mushrooms”, has brutally slain his wife and another man.
A string of grisly homicides quickly follows in this village, keeping our family man and unlikely hero busy. At home, his young and precocious daughter starts exhibiting some pretty freaky behaviour as well.
“There’s definitely something going on here,” muses his colleague.
You don’t say.
Before the ponytailed hipster shaman, amicable Christian deacon and mysterious Japanese newcomer cross paths in a colourful and frenetic tangle, you would have been introduced to a shrine flanked by eerie photographs of the dearly departed, a possibly demon-possessed child, a female figure in white, and a zombie that just cannot be taken down, even while lurching around with a rake firmly, and rather comically, embedded in its head.
In this movie, writer-director Na Hong-jin seems to enjoy inserting cliches as much as he does catching us by surprise with startling humour – for instance, a particularly gory scene ends when it cuts to a close-up of raw, red meat sizzling on the barbecue.
Entertaining as the visual humour may be, the movie never lets you forget the all-pervading air of helplessness and bleakness that hangs over this rural landscape and its inhabitants.
The slow simmer of The Wailing is surprisingly a rather riveting experience for the viewer.
What it does well is present an ominous, atmospheric story that gradually descends into madness and chaos; what it does less well perhaps is stay coherent.
The Wailing is an unsettling tale of … I am tempted to say good versus evil, but this over-simplification would be surely pushing it.
Surreal and bizarre, it reflects the real world in how things are painted in shades of grey and it is not always easy to tell wrong from right, or perhaps more challengingly, to define them.
Who will deliver us from evil?
It doesn’t matter even if good should vanquish evil this time, because the latter will always be all around us and within our very selves. The Wailing reminds us you can run from that evil, but you can’t hide.
Director: Na Hong-jin
Cast: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, Chun Woo-hee, Jun Kunimura