Mention a two-hour-plus running time, and Americans automatically think of overstuffed, explode-y, Michael-Bay-esque productions. You know, a three-hour Transformers epic that could’ve easily been wrapped up in half the time. It’s an understandable domestic fear harbored by bad experiences, but journey farther and you’ll find foreign markets where lengthy cinematic durations are easily sustained (maybe even enjoyed?). Korean films especially push far past the two-hour mark, and Na Hong-jin’s recent Cannes thriller, The Wailing, is just the latest example of how international filmmakers can continually accomplish such a daunting task. Whether you’re part of the “Buzzfeed culture” or not, good filmmaking will always triumph – you might just have to import it.
It all starts when a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) moves into a small Korean village, and is subsequently blamed for bringing with him a deadly plague. As the bodies begin to pile up, newspapers suggest an ingested mushroom is causing the rash of deaths and psychotic behavior, because explanations are sparse. The rationale seems sane, until a police Sergent Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) finds the same infection spreading in his daughter. He immediately begins to dig for clues, which lead him to the Japanese man’s mountain home, deep in the woods. Jong-Goo will turn to anyone for help if they’ll save his daughter, including a woman named Moo-myung (Chun Woo-hee), a flashy shaman (Hwang Jeong-min), and – if necessary – his own faith.
The beauty in Na Hong-jin slowly-simmering horror tale comes with each carefully plotted twist that The Wailing patiently reveals. Precision and timing help nurture a creeping sense of danger, while characters are permitted to work out conundrums to completion. Tonal jolts are avoided like the plague, which builds a concrete, hypnotizing story without ever having to sacrifice pacing or fulfillment. When Hong-jin begins an idea, he follows it through until finalization. Cutting corners only succeeds in trimming meat along with fat, versus meticulously carving with a butcher’s precision. In the ways of bubbling tension and dreadful atmosphere, The Wailing is a prime cut.
As each act shifts ever-so-slightly, this deceptive film reveals itself to be a slippery serpent that lulls audiences through goofball investigations, and then strikes with horrific ferocity. When we meet Jong-Goo, he’s a bumbling lawman who seems to care very little about his job. The scenes are lightly lit, and characters bounce around with an almost cartoonish vibrancy (even during gruesome murder scenes).
Then, as Jong-Goo’s daughter begins to show infected rashes and signs of possession, The Wailing takes an unearthly, devastating form. Light turns to dreary rainclouds and piercing darkness, while Jong-Goo’s nonchalant personality is traded for enraged heroics and a race against time. Intensity spikes, violence erupts and we find ourselves submersed in a grisly, vile nightmare engulfed by satanic madness. It’s a stark contrast, but one that’s beautifully morbid in execution. Since we’re initially introduced to a more harmonious story of strange encounters, Na Hong-jin’s climax lunges forward with an unparalleled, unexpected forcefulness. Patience is more than a virtue – it’s a gateway drug in this case.
Jong-Goo’s transformation would be nothing without Kwak Do-won’s performance, which allows for such invested growth. Yes, Na Hong-jin’s control ensures his symphony of players all remain in tune, but Kwak Do-won is responsible for mixing his character’s tumultuous heartbreak with fatherly ferocity. Same goes for Hwang Jeong-min’s flamboyantly tribal demon-warding practices, and Jun Kunimura, as the film’s shady source of conflict. Na Hong-jin allows The Wailing to boil organically, but without such in-tune actors (and actresses, as Jong-Goo’s daughter embraces hellishness quite well), all that tense, disturbing torment would be for naught.
Swirling an air of majesty, The Wailing is poetry in motion – if your prose were full of mangled corpses, undead spirits, and tales of sinister takeovers. Points are inevitably deducted for a long runtime leading to a few drawn-out scenes, but credit a transcendent tonal shift with granting audiences a triumphant second wind. In the end, a patient introduction finds itself long forgotten once Na Hong-jin tightens the proverbial noose, turning danger into genre enjoyment. It’s not “Ah, a ghost just popped out!” scary, but some real demented “OH SHIT THAT’S MESSED UP” kind of horror – slain bodies and all.
Why can't all two-hour-plus movies be this good?