The Wailing (3 stars)

The Wailing

Atmospheric South Korean chiller from Hong-jin Na that proves too inconsistent to fully grip

South Korea has proved fertile ground for genre films, from ruthless revengers such as I Saw the Devil and Oldboy to stranger fare like this year's terrific Train to Busan. But, despite garnering great word of mouth on the festival circuit, Hong-jin Na's atmospheric chiller turns out to be a difficult watch. Slow and jokey to begin with, it takes an hour or so to settle, never quite delivering the fireworks.

Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) is a policeman in the isolated village of Goksung (the film's native title). When a series of uncharacteristically brutal crimes sweeps through the region – stabbings, burnings, a hanging – suspicion falls on the mysterious 'Japanese man' (Jun Kunimura), about whom spooky folktales start to circulate. Some say he's a murderer, others a rapist, others an It Follows-style stalker. One scene has him, naked and red-eyed, in the woods, tearing raw meat from the carcass of a deer with his teeth. But can he really be to blame for what's going on, or is it just backwater bigotry? And what's wrong with Jong-goo's increasingly disturbed daughter Hyo-jin (Hwan-hee Kim)?

Although the film makes excellent use of the dank, danger-filled surroundings – all rotten flowers, poisonous mushrooms and lashing rainstorms – for the most part it's as uneven as it is unnerving. The early scenes of Jong-goo's investigation are played for broad laughs (as in the similar Memories of Murder) while the later ones involving shaman Il-gwang (Jeong-min Hwang) and his rituals reach a kind of fever pitch. Films like this are meant to get under the skin, but between endless murder scenes and supernatural murk, possessed children and prat-falling policemen, it becomes increasingly hard to know, or care, exactly what it is you're watching. The result is striking, frustrating and – whisper it – ripe for remaking.

Limited release from Fri 25 Nov.

The Wailing

  • 3 stars
  • 2016
  • US, South Korea
  • 2h 33min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Hong-jin Na
  • Cast: Do-won Kwak, Jun Kunimura, Hwan-hee Kim, Jeong-min Hwang
  • UK release: 25 November 2016

Jong-Goo (Do-won) is a policeman in the rural village of Goksung when a wave of brutal crimes sweeps through the region. It suffers from unevenness: the early part of the investigation is played for broad laughs, while the later ones reach a fever pitch and it becomes hard to know or care what you're watching.