As I see it, there are two stages to watching a great movie: recognition and surrender. Recognition is simply knowing you’re watching something great, but surrender is giving yourself over to it. “The Wailing” is recognizably great from the jump, but surrender comes during a climactic scene 40 minutes in.
In this sequence, the movie achieves perfect chaos. It begins formless, loud and difficult to follow, but, like puzzle pieces, falls into arrangement. Thanks to jarring sonic transitions and rapid cross-cutting, it falls into an intoxicating rhythm and reaches a place few movies do: perfection.
Before that moment, however, “The Wailing” begins simply. In a rural village, an incompetent policeman, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won, “The Magician”), finds that a mysterious illness is sweeping through his home, driving those it infects to violence. Villagers look for answers and lay the blame on a recently arrived Japanese man (Jun Kunimura, “Godzilla Resurgence”). Jong-goo comes to share these suspicions. When the illness reaches his daughter, Hyo Jin (Kim Hwan-hee, “Born to Sing”), he hires a shaman, Il-Gwang (Hwang Jung-min, “A Violent Prosecutor”) to cleanse her for good.
The movie succeeds, in part, because its parts seem so disparate. It’s a crime drama, a thriller, a possession movie and, in many ways, a love story. Director Na Hong-jin builds his visual language with parallels and, as such, easily brings those numerous genres together. The result is an often hellishly intense vision of what horror can be.
Intensity of that magnitude can’t be maintained without well-rounded characters. Where other horror treats its characters as flesh dolls to be picked apart, “The Wailing,” takes time to establish them. Kwak Do-won as Jong-goo and Kim Hwan-hee as Hyo Jin feel like a father and daughter. Together, they hold the lion’s share of poignant moments.
Even comparatively minor characters, like Il-Gwang, are endowed with life. This is thanks, at least in part, to the setting. The village is small, but the forest beyond is vast. As such, no character can avoid suffering because suffering is always nearby. It’s just a matter of time before it spreads. Hitchcock would be proud of the kind of tension this creates.
Despite running for two-and-a-half hours, the movie races by. It’s a slow burn of the best kind, building to a masterful crescendo that utilizes the fundamental strengths of cinema as an art form flawlessly. “The Wailing” deserves to be an event. It’s an accomplishment that’s staggering in scale, absolutely insane in execution, and a reminder of the kind of magic movies are capable of.