The Wailing is the most unsettling Korean horror film in years, but it offers more chills than answers

Good: the overwhelming sense of tonal dread and ambiguity, aided by some really beautiful scenery

The Wailing starts off in a rash of madness and stays that way. At its center is the beleaguered police sergeant Jong-Goo, played with a brilliant mix of exhaustion, indecisiveness, and fear by Kwak Do-won. Your typical muddling, frequently befuddled cop, Jong-Goo is baffled along with the rest of Gokseong’s local police force by the onset of a series of horrifically violent and inexplicable murders.

The killers all seem to suffer from the same zombie-like symptoms — they appear crazed and inhuman and are trying to eat the flesh of the living — as well as a skin rash and boils. Local town gossip fingers a newcomer as being somehow responsible for causing the affliction, a mysterious Japanese man who lives deep within the forested mountainside and is only known to the town’s residents as “the Jap.”

At first, Jong-Goo dismisses the rumors about this man and his evil supernatural powers as sheer ignorance. But as the bodies pile up and Jong-Goo’s own daughter is affected by the strange curse, developing the strange rash along with dark, violent desires, his reticence gives way to suspicion and desperation.

Na’s great gift as a director is his clear ability to meld different tonal moments without losing the larger sense of dread that hangs over his film. As Jong-Goo, Kwak swings from moments of comical incompetence as the fuddy-duddy local policeman to moments of barely concealed self-loathing to moments of absolute horror and rage as his distrust of the Japanese stranger and his fear for his daughter grows. Through each of these stark tonal shifts, the sense of horror and urgency surrounding the unknown curse that has come to his town is palpable.

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