Slow-burn horror pays off

Chun Woo Hee stars in The Wailing as a mysterious woman who lingers at the sites of grisly murders.
Chun Woo Hee stars in The Wailing as a mysterious woman who lingers at the sites of grisly murders.PHOTO: CLOVER FILMS

REVIEW / HORROR

THE WAILING (NC16)

156 minutes/Opens tomorrow/4/5 stars

The story: A small Korean hillside village is rocked by a spate of brutal unexplained murders - entire families are killed by suddenly deranged people who appear possessed. The chief suspect is a scary and mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) living in a forest. Jong Gu (Kwak Do Won), the policeman investigating the case, does not believe in the supernatural until his own young daughter, Hyo Jin (Kim Hwan Hee), becomes possessed.

Why are entire families in the close-knit rural community being slaughtered horrifically? Why have the killers turned so inexplicably violent and zombie-strong as though they were possessed?

Who, or what, is that foreign devil and why does his secluded hut in the forest contain remains of bloody animal sacrifice and creepy photos of the dead?

Or could the whole kill-fest be linked instead to the shadowy vanishing woman (Chun Woo Hee), who lingers at the crime scenes?

As determined by director Na Hong Jin - whose 2008 standout thriller, The Chaser, was about a desperate, futile attempt to save a woman captured by a serial killer - the unwanted terrible truth unveils itself at a snail's pace.

But the ensuing suspense and the enveloping paranoia and spookiness - stretched out by the exhaustive length of the film here - mean that this film really sucks you in. Even better, there is a terrifically gripping payoff right at the end.

As fear spreads in the village, Jong Gu goes from harried clumsy cop to confused, panicking parent when the public horror he is investigating disintegrates into a personal hell.

His family, turned upside down, grows increasingly helpless as the devastating affliction strikes his beloved little daughter, Hyo Jin, transforming her into an unrecognisable creature screaming and contorting in bed.

Everything is seen from the beleaguered father's perspective as he resorts first to rational reasoning, then to brutal force, and ultimately to the shaman's otherworldly help, which he does not truly believe in.

Director Na cleverly - maybe sadistically - is in no hurry to give his anguished character any hope or redemption. In this eternal battle between good and evil, an ordinary man with human weaknesses and inherent doubts is always fated to find the wrong answers to equally wrong questions.

Na knows that in Kwak (The Yellow Sea, 2010) and Kunimura (Attack On Titan, 2015) he has two very competent veteran performers who really seize our attention.

So much so that they even exorcise The Wailing's overlong portions right out of us.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Slow-burn horror pays off'. Print Edition | Subscribe