Jong-Goo is a rather luckless police officer in the South Korean village of Goksung. We first meet him investigating a bizarre murder, where the perpetrator remains at the scene of the crime, blood-soaked, dazed and covered in a strange rash. This is only the latest in a string of strange killings in the village, which coincide with the arrival of an enigmatic Japanese man who has taken a house in the hills. Jong-Goo as a village policeman is clearly unused to this level of violence. Suspicion falls on the Japanese visitor (who some locals think is a ghost), but even when confronted with seemingly incontrovertible evidence the cop fails to arrest him - is this a comment on the inability of South Korea to 'police' the presence of Japan in their country? Also under suspicion is a strange almost wordless young girl who seems to taunt the police and who holds her own secrets.
Jong-Goo's daughter Hyo-Jin falls ill, showing signs of demonic possession and becoming covered in the same rash as earlier victims of the strange village sickness. Her mother, fed up with the inability of the authorities to handle the situation, summons a smooth, well dressed, 4-wheel drive owning shaman to drive the devil out of the village. This action sets off a chain of increasingly odd events, where no-one is to be trusted and it becomes impossible to tell who, or how many, are hosts to the evil presence which causes the dead to return and attack the living.
The Wailing can be read in many ways; political allegory; a state of the nation look at communities in South Korea; family drama; wonky ghost story; and even as broad social comedy. For the film resists any particular categorisation and often veers crazily between all of them. However at its root this is a very tightly directed movie which rarely loses pace, moving slowly from amiable comedy to histrionic tension and some impressively horrific set pieces. But despite the often bizarre events on screen, Hong-jin Na consistently frames the action within a very believable village community, with sleepy police, jumped up authority figures, and people going about their business amid the mayhem. The weather is frequently appalling and much of the action takes place on rain sodden hillsides or surrounded by low level disorienting cloud cover, rendering the village even more isolated and its occupants trapped.
The Wailing has one set piece after another; the exorcism scene is a standout, with both the smooth shaman and the Japanese stranger battling it out for control of the situation in a riot of drumming, fire and precision editing. There are also some stand out performances here. Do Wan Kwak as Jong-Goo transitions from amiable village cop to frustrated father, powerless to control the murders in his district or the demonic disobedience of his daughter. And as Hyo-Jin young Hwan-hee Kim is exceptional, ranging from little girl cute to authentically and scarily possessed in a matter of seconds (I had a similar problem with the emotional extremes that this young actress was exposed to as I did with Kim Su-ann in the recent Korean movie Train to Busan).
Some critics have written that the director has failed to understand the horror genre in his sprawling epic. My own view is that we are in a golden era of horror movie making, where most of the more interesting takes on the format emanate not from the US or Britain, but from the east and other parts of Europe. The Wailing is a winner.