Review: Na’s latest mysterious to the end

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Review: Na’s latest mysterious to the end

Korean filmmaker Na Hong-jin is a skilled director without a doubt. It is always a matter of who agrees with his way of storytelling and who doesn’t.

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From top: Hwang Jung-min plays a shaman who is brought to the village to remove a spirit possessing an innocent girl; Japanese actor Jun Kunimura plays a suspicious man in the village; Kwak Do-won plays a police officer who tenaciously pursues the case after his daughter falls victim to the mysterious illness. [20TH FOX CENTURY KOREA]

During his career, the 42-year-old has already attended the prestigious Cannes Film Festival twice with his first two features - “The Chaser” (2008) and “The Yellow Sea” (2010) - and will be visiting the French festival for a third time next week with his latest release, “The Wailing,” which was invited to the out-of-competition section.

“The Wailing,” also known as “Gokseong,” which is Na’s comeback to the local film scene after six years, is likely to receive mixed responses.

First of all, it again includes an excessive amount of blood-splattering scenes as well as a high level of tension that mentally torments the audience.

But veering away from the approach he took in “The Chaser,” which was chasing after the assailant, this time Na focuses on portraying the destruction and sacrifices of the innocent victims.

For that reason, the sense of nervousness and revulsion have doubled, because while the perpetrator remains veiled until the end, the audience is continuously exposed to mysterious, brutal crime scenes.

But for the same reason, it is hard to get a clear grasp of the plot.

Na doesn’t explain why the ruthless killings began in the first place in the isolated village. How the characters cooperate and become enemies with each other remains ambiguous as well.

The film takes place in a mountainous village called Gokseong. In the village lives a wimpy police officer named Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) who is living with his wife, mother-in-law and a young daughter he loves very much.

The eerie and spooky ambience of the film is very well delivered through how Na worked with the camera, shooting the landscape of the village mostly from an aerial view. The pouring rain rarely stops throughout, intensifying the unpleasant, gloomy mood.

Then the village is swept by a series of mysterious murder cases, which some say are because of poisonous mushrooms. But the symptoms shown by the killers, who always remain at the crime scene, are far more serious than what a mere vegetable could cause. Their faces and bodies are covered with disgusting rashes and they are unable to speak clearly, almost resembling zombies.

As a result, rumors start to emerge that a Japanese fisherman who lives deep inside the forest is cursing the villagers. Some witnesses say that they have seen the man wearing nothing but a fabric diaper and eating a dead deer in the mountains. “Devil” is what they like to call him.

The case doesn’t proceed until a strange woman (Chun Woo-hee) tells Jong-gu that she has seen it all and it is the Japanese man who is behind the serial murders.

Jong-gu doesn’t listen carefully, until his own daughter starts to show similar symptoms to the killers, becoming overly aggressive and with rashes emerging on her skin. He invites a renowned shaman (Hwang Jung-min) from the neighboring village to expel whatever is taking over his little girl.

This point - 60 minutes into the film - is when things start to speed up and the gradual build-up of tension explodes. Hwang appears for the first time here. The shaman performs an exorcism ritual. The dynamic ritual scene happens in parallel with the Japanese man suffering in pain and finally collapsing.

But this is merely the beginning, as Jong-gu’s daughter starts to get worse.

Director Na plays a very complex tug-of-war with the audience, hindering them from coming to a conclusion about who the ultimate evil is.

It may take awhile, even more than a week, to put together the clues that Na has discreetly dropped here and there throughout the film. The pieces may even never come together.

But as Na has said during a press junket, he was not trying to talk about the murders themselves and how they were carried out, but rather was trying to tell the story of the victims.

He started the film under the premise that murderers don’t choose their victims based on specific motivations. Like the shaman (Hwang) says in the film, murderers are “just throwing out the bait, without knowing who will come up.”

“Unlike my previous movies, I wanted to tell the stories of the victims,” Na said. “I personally think such misfortune doesn’t derive from certain reasons, but just comes to the victims for irrelevant causes, which is why I needed to go beyond the means of the human world to explain that thinking.”

“No logic could explain it,” he added.

The fear and nervousness of Jong-gu as well as other innocent villagers is directly felt by the audience, keeping them on the edge of their seats for the entire 156-minute running time.

But aside from that fear and exhausting amount of tension, did the film left anything meaningful behind?

The movie seemed flawless right after the screening finished last week. But as the reporter dwelled on it, trying to put together the pieces, inexplicable plot holes began to emerge here and there. The baffled feeling may have been intended by Na or it may be just cinematic flaws.

Na has once again collaborated with the Fox International Production (FIP), the global arm of 21st Century Fox which had partially invested in his previous work “The Yellow Sea.” This time, the Hollywood studio fully financed the movie.

“[Na had a] unique vision and unique way of presenting the movie,” Tomas Jegeus, the president of FIP, said at a Seoul press event May 3.

“We are increasing productions in every market realm,” he said. “In Korea, from next year onwards, we are developing much bigger slates. We hope to grow from probably two films a year to maybe even up to three to four films a year.”

The film opened nationwide Wednesday, with the highest presale rate of all currently screening films.

BY JIN EUN-SOO [jin.eunsoo@joongang.co.kr]

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