*. On the face of it The Wailing seems like a fairly standard bit of Asian horror, complete with a demonically possessed little girl and a bleak ending that leaves evil still afoot. But then you note the running time of just over two-and-a-half hours and the precision with which it’s been made and you start paying a little more attention.
*. Does that increased attention pay off? Partly. The Wailing is a beautifully photographed film (Kyung-pyo Hong would go on to shoot Parasite), making it always nice to look at, but I started to wonder after a while if it should look so good. Does that really add anything to the picture?
*. This is a minor point that I’d like to dilate on a bit. There’s a tendency to praise a lot of movies for looking good and for beautiful photography even when looking good is not the point or is even counterproductive. This is often a question to be asked and I don’t think it gets asked enough. I mean, would you expect a John Cassavetes picture to look good? What would be the point?
*. Then there is that running time. This is not a terribly economical film, stretching out through various sequences that I think are excessively built up. This is especially the case with the two big intercut scenes: the exorcism (cutting between the shaman and the Japanese man) and the ending (cutting between Jong-goo confronting the mystery woman and the deacon confronting the Japanese man). Did we need so much back-and-forth here? Doesn’t it make these scenes less effective? They feel like they go on too long and the tension is watered down.
*. Nor do I find it a particularly scary film. Director Na Hong-jin doesn’t go for jump scares and he doesn’t use all the time he takes to build up any set-piece suspenseful moments. Instead there are a lot of strange comic bits that I didn’t think worked that well, with, when you get right down to it, a fairly pedestrian ghost story playing out in the background.
*. So I didn’t love The Wailing. I know I liked it a lot less than reviewers, as it received universal critical praise. But it’s still a good movie. Even as long as it is it’s never dull. And it does do a good job of exploring what I think is its central theme: Where, in the modern world, does authority reside?
*. I don’t mean authority in the pejorative sense it usually has today, as when describing someone or some government as authoritarian. I mean who has power, and in particular the power to serve and to protect. This is a question that is addressed in two different contexts.
*. In the first place there is Jong-goo’s status as father and as a cop. These are roles that we feel should mean something, though both are undercut in the early going. He’s a bumbling, cowardly cop who breaks the law and not much of a father either (his daughter even catches him screwing around on her mom). Nevertheless, this is what he hangs his hat on at the end, that daddy is a policeman and can protect Hyo-jin. Except he can’t. He has no real authority.
*. The second context that the question of authority is addressed in has to do with spiritual matters. Does a shaman have more authority than a priest? Do either have any authority over a ghost or the devil? Without giving too much away (thought you may take this as a spoiler alert) the answer here is again negative. Traditional, established sources of authority are shown to be corrupt and ineffective. This isn’t all that new — I’ve noted before the complete collapse of religion and its ability to challenge the forces of evil in contemporary horror (see my remarks on Paranormal Activity, for example) — and here it only brings things around to what has become a now familiar down-beat conclusion.
*. This questioning of authority is what, in turn, sets up the film’s climax where Jong-goo and the deacon are suspended in doubt about the true nature and identity of the forces they are fighting. How can they know what is really going on? Who can they trust?
*. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to The Wailing as a horror “epic” but I can’t think of what this is referring to aside from its length and maybe some of the photography. Because it’s really a fairly simple story about a rather low-rent demon infesting a mid-size town just for the hell of it. There’s a good twist, but you know a twist is coming and I didn’t find it all that surprising.
*. My own feeling is that the high-end treatment of genre material didn’t do the film any favours. I think I would have enjoyed it more if they hadn’t put so much work into it. Just compare, for example, low-budget J-horror classics like Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge. For a film like this I’d trade professionalism and high production values for a bit more of that energy and inspiration.