Blood-spattered thriller The Wailing is, in part, a two-and-half-hour sit-down at Korea's spiritual smorgasbord. The exuberantly desolate movie opens with a verse from the Gospel of Luke, and the characters include a traditional shaman, a Christian deacon, and a mysterious Japanese newcomer who's reputed to be either a Buddhist monk or a demonic ghost.
The film also samples recent Korean cinema, notably the rueful Memories of Murder and the lurid I Saw the Devil, as well as older Hollywood studies of Satanism, exorcism, and the undead. The viewer may feel as besieged by evil as the hapless protagonist, pudgy small-town policeman Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won).
The clumsy, unheroic Jong-gu is initially a figure of fun, always tardy for the latest in an epidemic of grisly homicides. Family members are butchering each other in attacks that leave shocking crime scenes at remote farmhouses in a mountainous backwater. The cop is way out of his depth and unable to prove any of the alleged causes. These include psychotropic mushrooms, some sort of plague, or that taciturn stranger the locals call "The Jap" (Jun Kunimura, probably best known in the U.S. for his Kill Bill role).
Writer-director Na Hong-jin takes his time en route to the ending — it can't really be called a conclusion — but scientific explanations should probably be ruled out. And while the presence of a Japanese character invokes lingering Korean resentment of their onetime imperial rulers, the payoff is unlikely to be political.
For all its gruesomeness, the movie's first part is blackly humorous. Shocking crimes and scary dreams alternate with slapstick, both verbal and visual; one gory scene ends when the director cuts to a closeup of barbecued meat at a nearby restaurant.
The tone changes when Jong-gu's cherished preteen daughter (the superb Kim Hwan-hee) becomes the next victim of the medical/mystical scourge. Police procedure is forgotten as the policeman and his partner engage in illegal searches. The cops also enlist the deacon, who speaks some Japanese, which allows them to question the suspect foreigner.
Jong-gu's mother insists they summon an exorcist (Hwang Jung-min), who turns out to be a ponytailed big-city hipster. He stages an elaborate exorcism, bloody and strange, that's one of the film's bravura moments. Crosscut with the Japanese man's simultaneous ritual, the sequence is as delirious as any of Nicolas Roeg's wildest visions.
But perhaps Jong-gu should listen to neither shaman nor stranger, but to a mysterious woman in white (Chun Woo-hee). She periodically arrives to offer unearthly advice, but refuses to explain how she knows what she says she does. Choosing which to believe among the weird trio is a continual problem. Clearly, Korean Yelp needs to improve its rating system for soothsayers.
Shot mostly with natural light by Snowpiercer cinematographer Hong Kyung Pyo, The Wailing is short on CGI and long on atmosphere. The carefully selected (and mostly scruffy) locations are wrapped in mists and raked by downpours. Both landscape and weather add a sense of reality even as the plot becomes increasingly unhinged.
Although suffused with horrors, the movie largely avoids slasher-genre cheap tricks, and returns to the New Testament for Jong-gu's piece of the final showdown. Theological references, however, don't boost the coherence of the movie's eventual revelations. Neat possible twists are teased and then, disappointingly, discarded. The Wailing is a Hell of a ride, but Na should have given more thought to its destination.