Only South Korea would be able to bring out a horror movie that can shift in tone and style whichever way it so desires, but that is exactly what happens in The Wailing. Part exorcist, part ghost, part pandemic, part monster, part zombie-ish, it’s even for some time a blundering cop comedy and it all manages to stay cohesive through an epic length of time.

Jong-Goo is a small time cop working in the Korean countryside who could hardly hardly be described as hard-boiled, with his chubby physique, meek authority and cowardice at the mere sight of viscera. But I suppose for a country town, sights such as the recent and bizarre murders taking place would startle just about anyone. People inexplicably disappearing and coming back to murder completely raving mad, leaving behind a slaughter, Jong-Goo finds himself uncovering the crimes at first as a naive wimp, but he grows up along the way.

Maybe the killers were high on bad mushrooms, or maybe there’s something about this rumour of a Japanese man living up in the hills (apparently he’s up to all sorts of weird stuff). So for some time The Wailing feels like a cop procedural starring Paul Blart with some satirical punches aimed at the blundering, feckless reality of actual cops, along with some political/cultural tensions of the gulf between the Japanese and just about every other East Asian country.

Things get stranger and stranger as Jong-Goo hears more about this Japanese character; how he’s a rapist, a cannibal, or even a demon of sorts. He even ends up invading Jong’s nightmares, his daughter becomes possessed much like the suspects in many of the recent killings; mad, wild and raving at the loved ones around her. Much of the film sees Jong follow on an iffy but intriguing case while also seeking the help of a shaman for his daughter as he must perform rituals to expel the demon inside of her.

The direction the film takes is windy yet vast and, at roughly two and half hours, I could see people giving up. However, the mystery of why these killings are taking place and why they’re so brutal digs away at you, and the film gives so sparingly that it was bold of the it to keep you at that level of expense for such a long length of time. This is exactly the kind of pot-boiler movie that I bet many people didn’t know they wanted, and the film is all the better for hiding away its secrets until the best possible moment, revealed with restrained but intriguing photography and morbid make-up design.

Over time, as the film gets more brutal, the more you end up empathising with Jong. Seeing him pick up the pieces and following what feels right for him and for his family; seeing him grow as he becomes braver after every challenge makes the horror even more real. A testament to the actor’s abilities to display a breadth of performance that can show weakness and strength.

The film is always making you second guess what is going on: are there people becoming infected and returning as zombified killers? Is there a Japanese man conjuring up dark magic? Is he a demon? All these questions get answered in really spectacular and bloody ways. There’s a bunch of horror movies jammed into one here and I’m not sure I get along with how it switches between those gears and, after a long watch, I don’t know if many other people would. But reaching the end was very rewarding in how unique and surprising it all ends up being.

Dir: Hong-jin Na
Scr: Hong-jin Na
Cast: Do-won Kwak, Woo-hee Chun, Jung-min Hwang, So-yeon Jang, Han-Cheol Jo, Hwan-hee Kim, Jun Kunimura
Prd: John Penotti
DOP: Kyung-pyo Hong
Country: South Korea
Year: 2016
Running Time: 156 mins

The Wailing is released on 30th January 2017.