The Devil Probably
By Adam Nayman

The Wailing
Dir. Na Hong-jin, South Korea, Well Go USA

The best thrillers are marked by moments when a larger, heretofore hidden reality unveils itself. Think of the arrival of the duct-taped package in Se7en, or the revelation of the figure in the little red raincoat in Don’t Look Now, or the final shot of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, and the way its blink-or-miss-it punchline extends the story’s malevolence into infinity. The Wailing builds to just such a twist, which might account for it setting a small world on fire since its Cannes bow last month, with raves coming in almost across the board. To watch Na Hong-jin’s epically scaled South Korean horror-procedural hybrid is to see a filmmaker flush with the desire to craft a classic.

Like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)—an inescapable point of comparison, and almost certainly an influence considering that Na shares cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo with Bong—The Wailing is set in a small village lying just beyond the purview of modernity. In the opening scenes, writer-director Na establishes the (fictional) hamlet of Goksung, whose name, roughly translated, means “the sound of weeping,” as a proverbial one-horse town encircled by forests and a set of mountain peaks. Bong used his rural setting to score a sociological point: to show the gap between city and country life in the waning days of the country’s late-80s despotism. Na, though, is aiming for something more out of time. His depiction of a tight-knit community in the grip of superstition gives the film the cozy feeling of a fable. The opening shot, describing a fisherman baiting a hook by the river, is a veritable fairy-tale synecdoche—an offhanded hint at how to watch the story to come.

Moments later, heavyset sergeant Jong-gu (the blustery Kwak Do-won) is first glimpsed sleeping in a heap on the floor. It’s the right introduction to a character who takes longer than he should to awaken to the true nature of what’s going on around him. Called in the middle of the night to investigate the death of a ginseng farmer’s wife, Jong-gu discovers a crime scene at once more repugnant and mysterious than advertised over the phone, and is evidently out of his depth; in a grimly funny throwaway joke, he stumbles clumsily into a pile of grue, earning looks of disgust from his colleagues.

Bong mined similar hick-cop sight gags in Memories of Murder, but where that film’s search for an elusive serial killer interrogated institutional and individual frailties, The Wailing remains focused on a completely external threat. (In this, Na seems to model his narrative and thematic system after John Carpenter, who really should check this movie out.) The early introduction of a likely culprit, an elderly Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) spotted lurking at the scene of the crime, and then in the vicinity of a subsequent massacre whose MO and aftermath look suspiciously familiar, throws our expectations out of whack. Jong-gu’s suspicions about the outsider are fueled by local gossip; in a beautifully staged flashback sequence, the town drunk recounts spotting the old duffer out in the woods, wearing only a diaper, feasting on the corpse of a freshly killed deer and flashing bright-red demon’s eyes. Na’s ability to play this scene for shivers and laughs simultaneously is impressive, and also instructive, since The Wailing will skirt ridiculousness with growing boldness as it goes along, and as the supernatural aspects of the situation become less ambiguous. The director is not shy about piling on incidents and imagery that feel borrowed from other horror movies: mutilated corpses and strange mutations; ominous birds and ritualistically slain livestock; occult totems and bodies writhing in the throes of some physical possession.

The challenge the film poses to a Western audience is to look at these elements—especially the possession stuff, which takes over the plot about midway through and brings the terror home by affecting one of Jong-gu’s family members—not through the lens of generic appropriation, as postmodern horror movies from Scream to It Follows have trained us, but as specific cultural signifiers. (The same holds true for making the possible antagonist Japanese, a knowingly historically loaded bit of dramaturgy.) Rather than playing a game of spot-the-allusion, Na is digging into the religious fabric of a country where old traditions still hold sway, and the long sequence where a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) attempts to perform a “death hex” against a marauding spirit to the pounding soundtrack of drums feels excitingly closer to ethnography than The Exorcist.

At the same time, Na certainly has fun with an onscreen world whose rules keep getting rewritten with each new iteration of evil. A set-piece pitting a group of vigilantes against an unexpected (to put it mildly) adversary gets close to the gleeful bad taste (and Bad Taste) of early Peter Jackson. The question may be what such splatter-ific excess is doing in a movie that keeps framing itself in broadly Judeo-Christian terms as a morality tale, and in lieu of any substantial answers, Na just keeps torquing the tone accordingly. At times, he’s able to put across ideas with camera movement, as when Jong-gu finds himself teetering at the edge of a chasm that’s also an ethical precipice, and while he lacks Bong’s impeccable sense of pacing—as much a matter of regularly switching up visual strategies as the speed of the editing—he has the same ability to lead the viewer’s eye to important details, whether it’s a suggestive piece of costume design or a significant figure hiding in plain view, just waiting to be glimpsed at the back of a deep-focus frame.

What the director isn’t so adept at—or at least where the evidence proves inconclusive—is basic storytelling, especially in the home stretch. Often, the most frightening movies are the ones where the pieces don’t quite add up, whether it’s the willful enigmas of The Shining (a film so scarily coherent on the level of sound, image, and metaphor that its failures as drama scarcely matter) or the raging inchoateness of Kill List, which revels in the disorientation of the spectator. The issue isn’t simply that The Wailing is baffling on a cause-and-effect-level (which I’m pretty sure, after a single viewing, it is), but that the confusion it engenders is more practical than philosophical—notwithstanding the portentousness of the final fade-out.

The temptation is to view the film’s incoherence as a commentary on the Miltonian proximity (if not interchangeability) of good and evil, or perhaps the slackening grip of authority in a contingent world, or, if you’re up for it, a subversion of the rules of genre filmmaking. Some viewers may well be willing to go along with any, or all of these, and Na’s willingness to “go there”—in a way that, say, the producers of True Detective season one were finally too timorous to try—underlines the excitement that goes along with a filmmaker stretching himself to the limit, even if his attempts at metaphysical sleight of hand are finally an example of reach exceeding grasp.