When Trista and I got back from NECON in 2016, we never expected that convention to kick off a career reviewing films together. However, it did just that. Authors LL Soares and Michael Arruda have been doing the Cinema Knife Fight column for years. Together, they made a site around their updates, inviting others to write up columns of material to fill out the days and weeks of each passing month. Starting in August that year and carrying all the way through this year, when the site closed, Trista and I contributed several thousand words that offered up our own (admittedly oddball) perspectives. We got a few thousand eyeballs on the column. It was great fun. Not everyone agreed with what we said, but that was fine. Agreement was not what we were in search of. Considered responses were. It’s kind of the MO for our weekly updates here at ConsideringStories.
Well, as I mentioned some weeks back, the Cinema Knife Fight website is no more. Maybe it will come back down the line, or maybe it will remain dormant. Who knows? The columns we and others wrote still exist, however, and we plan on running a few of the out of print Alamo Cinema Massacre ones here in our Movie Mondays slot to keep them alive. At year’s end, I figure we will pull these together into a book, but until that time we hope our regular visitors will enjoy these columns for films that might not be showing at the art house cinema but nevertheless remain available.
Today, we present the first column we wrote together for the Korean shocker: THE WAILING. It was a movie we caught in limited theatrical release at the time, and which is now available for immediate access.
Roll Teaser Trailer:
A small town in rural south Korean is rocked by mystery and mayhem. Families are being butchered by those closest to them, a house is set alight in the middle of the night, a morning bicyclist is thrown from his ride when he finds a corpse hanging in a tree, and strange ceremonies are being enacted. The local police force is overwhelmed by the mounting carnage, but tries to restore order. Unfortunately, the flood of terror is rising. The town’s rumor mill places the responsibility at the feet of a stranger recently arrived in the region, who may not even be human at all. Are these stories simple xenophobic attempts to rationalize greater forces at work or do they hold a kernel of truth? When likeable but generally bumbling sergeant Jong Gu’s daughter shows signs of becoming a victim to the murderous plague of violence striking the town, he finds himself obsessed with uncovering answers . . . only to discover some revelations are accompanied by deepest horror.
THE WAILING (2016) is a horror/mystery that leaves us asking, “What just happened?” when it ends.
We start with Jong Gu, a police sergeant and father living in a Korean rural town. He’s awakened at dawn by a phone call – there’s been a murder.
Curiously, his wife and mother-in-law don’t seem surprised or shocked by the news, and indeed encourages Jong Gu to stay home and eat breakfast before heading out to deal with the body. “The dead will stay dead when you get there.”
The ginger grower’s family has been destroyed by a murder-suicide. The police must restrain an uncle who blames the only one left alive: A boils-covered young man leaning against a post, drenched in blood and insensate to his surroundings. We are unsure if he is instigator or victim. Frankly, I’m amazed Jong Gu kept his lunch down.
The crime scene is cleaned and the boils-and-rash near-zombie is taken to hospital. A mysterious foreigner, a Japanese man new to the region, may or may not have photographed the scene. And life goes on, intercut by mountainous nature scenes of breathtaking beauty … until the next murder occurs.
Whodunit? Are the deaths by shamanic curse, an evil ghost, some strange contagion, or a madman? Are some of the players alive, dead, or demon possessed? We follow Jong Gu as he tries to unravel rumors and mysteries while protecting his family.
So, Dan, what did you like about THE WAILING?
What most surprised me about THE WAILING is how much of a kitchen sink experience it is. Here is a movie not content to be one thing, say a strange serial killer movie. There’s a carnage plot, sure, but it is leavened with body horror elements. That weird skin condition… What’s up with that? The film forces viewers to question whether or not a supernatural element is involved, misdirects a couple of times, and ultimately brings in several forms of spiritualism/religion to offer possibilities, including a brilliantly shot exorcism. Is Jong Gu’s daughter and the rest of his town being possessed or are the violent outbursts results of a biologically induced craziness? THE WAILING kicks this question in the nards by suggesting a third possibility: Could the answer somehow include both options? This results in the kind of layered movie that begs to be talked about or debated over after the credits roll.
Family and community are vital to this story. We have not only Jong Gu’s demanding work, but his attempts to balance time with his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law. Further, Jong Gu’s community relationships play a vital role, as well, whether taking the form of his boss’ dissatisfaction with his perpetual excuses at being late, his partner’s gentle ribbing, to the guys Jong Gu hangs out with after/before work. The sense of a close knit community is built in a few telling scenes, but the effect adds an ever-present background melody to the whole experience. Especially when the body count starts to rise.
This community closeness also adds to the Otherness of the Japanese stranger (brilliantly played by Japanese character actor Kinimura Jun) who lives in the woods and fishes at the lake; he is an intrusion, someone who does not speak their language or share their beliefs. His only companion is a big, black, mean as hell dog. He shows up (like the rest of the community, admittedly) at the scenes of horror, but he brings his camera. A planner! He has to be responsible for the outbreak of horror! Maybe he’s a professor or a Buddhist shaman, but maybe he’s also a demon or a ghost, right?
Comedy is also evoked in a fearless and fresh way: Here is a movie is unafraid to juxtapose honestly funny dialogue or a slapstick beat into the midst of a horrifying situation only to bounce right back into horror. Most importantly, it has the skill to do so without lessening the tension. Take the example of a group of town vigilantes encountering a seemingly unstoppable and unstable man. Their adversary takes hits without stopping, either diseased beyond pain-recognition or raised from the dead. The vigilantes hit this adversary with all they have, even slamming a rake into his skull; however, there is no stopping him. At one point he catches a makeshift weapon, a shovel, snatches it from the vigilante’s hand, snaps the hand in half and then smacks the vigilante in the face with the blade. We get that loud, cartoonish BONK! sound, and it gets a deserved giggle, but that laugh does nothing to undercut the tension established. If anything it relieves enough to let the next bite, the next flail, the next scream kick the tension into an even higher, frenzied state.
All of these elements work together like a really good stew. No single flavor drowns out the others. They instead combine in interesting ways. THE WAILING energized me, catching me in its spell, startling me with a beautiful shot even as it got my heart pounding at the horror and suspense. I am impressed.
Was there anything you didn’t like about the movie, Trista?
This movie is 156 minutes long, which at an Alamo Drafthouse 10pm showing gets late darn quick. While there were many times when I wasn’t sure which direction THE WAILING would go next, I was never bored watching it. Strap in for the long haul, coffee up if necessary – it’s definitely worth it!
Besides, you know me. The only other major complaint I had was that almost all the Korean food in the movie looked delicious, and made me hungry… with the exception of venison guts tartare.
Another really cool thing about THE WAILING is how the culture in this small town balances religious perspectives with practical reality. We meet the local Catholic deacon because he speaks Japanese, and can therefore translate for Jong Gu when he goes to interrogate the Japanese Buddhist Monk. The Korean shamanic tradition is at the forefront, with an awesome (and hugely loud) exorcism sequence vibrant with energy, color, and blood sacrifice. The hospital workers are kind and competent but baffled by the strange plague of blood and boils. We are never quite sure which perspective is the correct one, and the film gives credence to all of them. Life, after all, is somewhere in between.
It’s hard to find a film to compare The Wailing to; the closest I can recall to the feeling of distraught wonder was UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010). Like THE WAILING, UNCLE BOONMEE blurs the line between the spirit world and the practical world, telling macabre ghost stories and unraveling mysteries in their own time.
Did you have any other recommendations, Dan?
Actually, the references that come to mind are a mix of movies and books. THE WAILING has the feel of a Bentley Little style gonzo horror novel (think “UNIVERSITY”, “THE TOWN”, or “THE VANISHING”) transplanted from Arizona to Asia. The character of Jong Gu starts out like a Korean Norris Ridgewick, the bumbling yet loveable deputy from Stephen King’s Castle Rock books such as “THE DARK HALF” and “NEEDFUL THINGS”, given his own movie. From a film perspective, it has touches of THE EXORCIST (1976) and similar Satanic panic flicks from the seventies, little nods to Romero’s early world-falling-apart flicks like THE CRAZIES (1973) and the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), as well as ghostly elements from moody J-horror titles such as the Pang Brothers’ THE EYE (2002) and the beautiful camerawork found in Park Chan-Wook films such as OLDBOY (2003) and THIRST (2009). What’s nice is, though I can sense elements or touches from other sources, THE WAILING is its own bloodthirsty beast and not some rip off.
This is a movie that pays off a good theater experience. The soundtrack and sound effects were loud as hell, adding to the you-are-there experience. It had me jumping, all right. The visuals, the sound, the score, the moodiness and the apocalyptic dread . . . One hell of an exhausting and exhilarating experience.
I was left groping for words after this gorgeous, gory, creepy, scary, funny event. It’s a spectacular Korean film which doesn’t fit neatly into American ideas of genre. I’d recommend it to Asian horror newbies and aficionados alike, and don’t be afraid of the subtitles!
So Dan, can we go back to that great Korean restaurant sometime soon? Because delish.
*scratching at a bumpy rash that has appeared on his wrist* Maaaaybe . . .
THE WAILING is available in DVD, Blu-Ray, and video streaming copies.
Next week, we will continue in the Korean horror vein with our review of the fast moving (and emotionally moving) zombie horror flick TRAIN TO BUSAN. Copies of this one are also available via DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming.