Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is a policeman in this remote region of South Korea, but the crime rate is rarely anything to worry about, hence when he is awoken to be called into work one morning he can still find time to eat a hearty breakfast as requested by his wife (Jang So-yeon) before setting off to the scene. However, when he gets there it's almost enough to send that breakfast back up out of his stomach: the murders have been conducted with extreme savagery and the corpses look to have been desecrated in unspeakable ways, while the culprit sits in the pouring rain resembling some kind of gore-drenched zombie. Whatever is happening, Jong-goo doesn't like it, he's not prepared for this at all...
Can a film still be any good if it makes no sense to anybody but its creator? You would like to think it could be, but then again you could observe it had failed in some manner if it was supposed to be coherent or at least making a clear point. The writer and director here, Na Hong-jin, claimed The Wailing was his commentary on the state of society as he saw it, Korean society presumably, yet you would have to presume an awful lot to be able to get anywhere with this film for there was a lot of it which came across as if Na had deliberately left out anything that might have provided a concrete solution to his barrage of mysteries, as indeed may well have been the case. It certainly made for a memorable experience.
And an experience was the best description, a succession of weird, often hysterical scenes that concocted a mood of anguish and bewilderment; it was not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but there would always be a film buff who liked a challenge, which was assuredly on offer here. Though it began as a murder mystery, one which it should be pointed out has no obvious explanation even at the end of the film, it quickly turned into yet another of those "tributes" to the classic seventies horror The Exorcist of which the third millennium was delivering an abundance, seemingly tapping into a spiritual unease and worry over a loss of innocence that was afflicting the world in general. The victim in this case was Jong-goo's little daughter (Kim Hwan-hee).
She put in a remarkably sustained performance of body-contorting insanity once she had been taken over by the demon, though with this plot there was always the chance that nothing of the kind had taken place and it was a matter of mass hysteria. Born of what? Of a fear, nay, a terror of the outsider, who here was a Japanese man (veteran character actor Jun Kunimura) who had recently moved into an isolated cottage in the area. Na appeared to be positing a near-parody of xenophobia as this chap is blamed for everything that has gone wrong, including the murders and the possession, simply because of his nationality and the no love lost between the Koreans and the Japanese, but then again there is evidence the character has been conducting arcane rituals, including with the girl's shoe, which may be a misunderstanding.
Nevertheless it gives Jong-goo a chance to unleash his prejudices with some ferocity in a scene that might be intended to be comedic, but then again as with pretty much all of this is was difficult to tell what was going through the mind of its creator. As the weirdness accumulated, a mystery woman was introduced (Chun Woo-hee) whose purpose seemed to be to render this yet more confounding since she did not clear up anything whatsoever. The effect was either bound to be a massive turn-off for most of the audience while being of great entertainment value to those who professed to "get" it, and it was apparent that Na was a talented man in the way he allowed his imagination free rein, but compared to his earlier thrillers that may have sprawled in a similar way, that previous control was lacking. Adding to the bemusement was that there was not one single explanation for what was happening that would suit what we were presented with, so while a nightmarish atmosphere was the obvious goal, at over two and a half hours testing the bounds of what was deemed acceptable in a film of that length was an unfortunate by-product too.