Friday, 25 November 2016

Which witch?: "The Wailing"

Although that extreme genus of Korean cinema that flourished in the Noughties appears to have subsided of late - or merely been deemed less marketable by sales agents and distributors - its leading warriors fight on in different fields. The Wailing - brought to us by Hong-jin Na, the sadistic genius who presided over 2008's The Chaser and 2010's The Yellow Sea - opens as a knockabout police procedural, that peculiarly Korean subgenre that was initiated by 2003's Memories of Murder and recently travelled as far as Belgium, the Korea of Europe, giving rise to 2014's P'tit Quinquin. Here, it's a rain-lashed mountain village that finds itself plagued by unexpected events: a spate of bloody murders, houses burning to the ground, reports of a Japanese man, who may be a sorcerer, a cannibal, a ghost or just a transient, living out in the nearby woods. Our man on the case/nonplussed observer/human punchbag is the sturdy Sergeant Jong-gu (Kwak Du-won), who quickly works up a theory that all this has something to do with the local mushrooms; he already has his hands full on the homefront, what with trying to initiate conjugal relations with his wife while his mother-in-law fusses around them, and - more pressingly - with a sudden sickness that consumes the couple's young daughter, leading everyone to ponder what's got into her.

Suffice to say there is a lot going on in these 150-odd minutes; the impression is of another of those recent boxset movies, attempting to cram an entire TV season's worth of plot and incident into a single sitting. Na only ups the discombobulation by bolting together scenes nobody else would assemble in this order. Wince-inducing trauma sits side-by-side with domestic farce; a trip to one grisly murder site climaxes with a priest being attacked by a dog; and at every turn, this director seems to give not one fig whether or not there might be a tonal disconnect. One of the reasons The Wailing feels so dense is its perverse willingness to stick its nose into every last avenue and alleyway of Jong-gu's investigation, even those that don't seem to be leading him (or us) anywhere worthwhile. Na's evidently playing a long game, seeing just how far he can push a genre film without letting slip just what kind of genre film it is. It's the mystery that grabs us by the lapels and pulls us in: few recent films have set their audience so urgently to wondering just what the fuck is going on. Around the midpoint - with the arrival of a travelling exorcist - both the village and the movie appear to have gone quite, quite mad; all we're aware of is that we're slapbang in the middle of something.

The pleasure lies in seeing what that something is revealed to us gradually, by a sure hand: my instinct is that Na knows exactly what he's doing, and indeed where his tale's heading, but that he's having a ball toying with the viewer's perceptions. All I'll let slip here is that what this village is actually plagued by is a suspicion and superstition that points them in the wrong direction; I know it's silly to claim that every film now showing seems in some way a reflection of our troubled historical moment, but you could arguably draw a direct line - and it would be the only straight line this circumlocuting masterwork permits - between the events unravelling on screen and the fear and mob rule that have dictated so much of Western life in 2016. Either way, by arriving hot on the heels of last month's Train to Busan, The Wailing offers further proof that no other film industry is being more brazen right now about upending our expectations of genre fare: it would have been a brave producer who took a look at Na's rushes and declared "yeah, this guy's got it all under control", when - for much of its running time - the finished product plays as so thrillingly, seat-of-the-pants unhinged.

The Wailing opens in selected cinemas from today.

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