J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Wailing: Na Hong-jin Gets Demonic

Let’s be frank, we all had a lot more confidence in the Catholic Church’s double-secret exorcism department under the old school Benedict than the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” Francis, but if you live in a tony Georgetown townhouse, the Church is still your best bet. However, in rural Korea, a cop with possessed daughter can opt for a shaman’s services instead. Unfortunately, the hotshot shaman is about to encounter an evil entity more powerful than any he previously vanquished. The battle between light and dark will be joined in Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ordinarily, Gokseoung is a peaceful beat for officer Jong-goo, but a rash of family members inexplicably killing family members has profoundly disturbed the small mountain community. Jong-goo’s constant nightmares also clearly seem to be a portent of something evil. Most of Gokseoung and some of his colleagues blame the apparent outbreak of insanity on the arrival of a mysterious Japanese drifter (and rumored sorcerer) living in a creepy cabin in the woods. Therefore, when his young daughter Hyo-jin starts exhibiting behavioral changes similar to Jong-goo’s recent suspects, he agrees to hire the hotshot shaman recommended to his mother-in-law.

Il-Gwang certainly has no lack of self-confidence, but the malevolent power radiating from the evil Japanese mystery man is of a much higher magnitude than he has ever faced. Despite the well-placed alarm of Yang Yi-sam, the deacon cousin of Jong-goo’s police mate, the local Catholic Church remains skeptical on the sidelines. However, the mysterious Moo-myeung, a literal woman in white, very much in the tradition of Wilkie Collins and Japanese yūrei, becomes the wild card in the uncanny struggle.

Na established an international reputation for gritty, pedal-to-the-metal action in The Chaser and The Yellow Sea. Six years later, he proves he can do eerie atmosphere and mounting dread as good or better than anyone. On the other hand, consistent narrative logic is clearly not a priority. There is a huge twist that just make no sense whatsoever, considering what came before. You will know it when you see it. You can roll with it and retcon the revelation in your head as best you can or obsess over it and miss out on the soul-searing angst that comes with it (and wouldn’t it be a shame to miss out on fun like that?).

Regardless, anyone who has seen a fair sampling of Korean films knows Na is in business when they see Hwang Jung-min swagger on screen as Il-Gwang. Hwang has played his share of nice guys in films like The Himalayas, but this is the shark-like Hwang that electrifies The Wailing, just like he did in New World and The Veteran. It is a deliciously multifaceted performance, in ways that only become clear down the stretch.

Kwak Do-won, who has done some excellent big screen villainy in A Company Man and Tazza: the Hidden Card, effectively plays against type as the schlubby, out of his depth Jong-goo. Chun Woo-hee keeps us intrigued and off-balance as Moo-myeung, while young Kim Hwan-hee is terrific as the young possessed girl. However, nobody gets the better of Japanese character actor Jun Kunimura, who gives the film a feral, pagan edge that defies comparison.

Most horror films reflect the dark corners of the collective cultural psyche that produced them, but The Wailing is in a class by itself. It is so riddled with contradictory attitudes towards Shamanism, animism, and Catholicism, as well as old school anti-Japanese prejudices, the film practically represents national primal scream therapy. Fans already knew Na was a talented filmmaker, but they will still be surprised how deeply he gets under their skin. Highly recommended with all its inconsistent hobgoblins, The Wailing opens this Friday (6/3) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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