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When village cop Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) gets woken before dawn and summoned to the scene of a suspected murder, his wife persuades him to stay at home and have a proper breakfast first. This paunchy put-upon sergeant clearly isn’t cut out for serious police work, which may prove to be his undoing. As his hometown convulses in an outbreak of violent crime, committed by locals who appear to be possessed, Jong-gu’s response to the situation isn’t so much bumbling as dangerously incompetent.

There’s something deeply sinister going on in “The Wailing” (original title “Gokseong”) and I’m reluctant to divulge too much, because this is a film that’s best enjoyed without prior knowledge of what’s in store. If you’re planning to see it — and if you appreciate superior genre cinema, you really should — I’d suggest you consider this entire review a spoiler and go peruse the sports pages instead.

It would be interesting to know what the elevator pitch was for this long, messy and genuinely thrilling film. “The Wailing” veers from police drama to ghost story to zombie horror and back again, while tossing a generous helping of shamanism and Christian symbolism into the mix. At times, it resembles “The Exorcist” transplanted to the South Korean countryside; at others, it’s closer in tone to “Memories of Murder,” Bong Joon-ho’s masterful, slow-burning serial-killer drama.

The Wailing (Kokuson)
Rating
Run Time 156 mins
Language Korean, Japanese (Japanese subtitles)
Opens MARCH 11

Writer-director Na Hong-jin’s previous two movies, “The Chaser” and “The Yellow Sea,” proved that he could sustain suspense over implausible lengths of time. He pushes that skill even further here: “The Wailing” clocks in at a hefty 156 minutes, and part of the excitement of watching it comes from wondering what the heck it’s going to throw at you next.

It’s clear from the outset that strange things are afoot in Gokseong, the eponymous county of the film’s Korean title. Jong-gu arrives at crime scenes to find perpetrators who look more like extras from “The Walking Dead,” their eyes bulging madly amid faces caked with dirt and blood. The police initially blame magic mushrooms, but that theory doesn’t hold for long.

Rumors start to swirl that the crimes are connected to a mysterious Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) who recently moved to the area, and has reportedly been spotted in the forest feasting on animal carcasses while wearing nothing but a loincloth. Foreigners, eh.

“All this stuff started to happen when that old Jap showed up,” Jong-goo’s colleague mutters, articulating a casual racism that the film is careful not to endorse. But could the outbreak of craziness also be connected with a mysterious young woman (Chun Woo-hee) who shows up at one of the crime scenes to give Jong-gu some tantalizing clues, only to mysteriously disappear?

Things get weirder still when Jong-gu’s daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), comes down with a fever and wakes up with a ravenous appetite and a newfound penchant for obscenities, prompting her grandmother to enlist a shaman to perform an old-school exorcism. What could possibly go wrong?

Kunimura picked up an Asian Film Award nomination for his quietly inscrutable performance in the film, and his presence makes a refreshing change from the usual practice of casting Korean actors with lousy linguistic chops in Japanese-speaking roles. But the biggest revelation is Kim, who was just 12 years old when “The Wailing” was shot, but pulls off a transformation from sweet tween to demon child that could put even Linda Blair to shame.

Throughout the film, Na shows little interest in the jump scares and aggressive sound design that are the standard tools of horror cinema, but he doesn’t even need them. The climax of “The Wailing” is all the more chilling for how quiet it is: When faced with true evil, most people forget to scream.

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