by Hope Madden
“Why are you troubled,” Jesus asked, “and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see — for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
Biblical quotes are a common, often effective way to open a horror film. Of course, they usually come from Revelation or contain some other wrath-of-God kind of sentiment. Don’t be fooled, though, because South Korean writer/director Hong-jin Na knows where he’s doing with his third genre-bending epic, The Wailing – even if you don’t.
Though the true meaning of this quote won’t take hold until the final act, it presents many questions. Is this film supernatural? Demonic? Or, given the corporeal nature of the quote, is it rooted in the human flesh?
That’s what makes the quote so perfect. Na meshes everything together in this bucolic horror where superstition and religion blend. The film echoes with misery, as the title suggests. The filmmaker throws every grisly thing at you – zombies, pustules, demonic possession, police procedural, multiple homicides – and yet keeps it all slippery with overt comedy.
In rural Korea, lackadaisical police sergeant Jong-gu (Do-won Kwak) is baffled by the rash of ugly homicides striking the village. And they are ugly – not only because of their brutality, but because of the boil-covered state of each perpetrator.
Some locals blame toxic mushrooms, but others say it’s the work of that solitary foreigner (Jun Kunimura) who recently moved to the outskirts of town.
Backwater beliefs, small town hysteria, mob mentality – or is it? The filmmaker toys with your preconceived notions, partly by crafting Jong-gu – with the help of the dramatically agile Kwak – into an endearingly flawed hero. A comically bumbling cop, Jong-gu’s sudden appreciation of the seriousness of the situation only amplifies tensions because he – like the audience – is in over his head. As he puzzles through clues in an attempt to save his stricken daughter (an amazing Hwan-hee Kim), Na’s feats of misdirection come to an unbearable head.
The languid pace, which makes the most of DP Kyung-pyo Hong’s gorgeous photography, may feel like needless expansion, but it serves to let images and questions settle. It lets the misery soak in a bit.