The plot of the film involves a mysterious illness or curse that enters a remote Korean mountain village when a Japanese tourist arrives to town. The malady causes victims to develop glowing red eyes and dark skin, as well as odd contortions of their bodies. Ultimately, sufferers kill their entire families.
It is near the beginning of this curse that Officer Gong-joo witnesses a naked, wild-eyed woman banging on the doors of his police substation during a thunderstorm. Gong-joo and his partner hide behind their desks, debating about who will check on the naked woman, but the woman has fled by the time they muster the courage to investigate. At a crime scene a short time later, they find the woman, along with her family, dead or raving violently at their burned out home.
It is established early on that Officer Gong-joo is a pitiful loser, but he loves his daughter, Hyo-jin, a predictably adorable little Korean girl. Gong-joo cheats on his wife, shirks work responsibility, and is the laughingstock of his police precinct. He is a coward and an utter failure, but he is—in spite of it all—a good father.
When his beloved daughter comes down with the strange curse, he has the opportunity to prove his courage.
The film follows Gong-joo’s efforts to curse his daughter’s affliction, from confronting the Japanese man—who stares listlessly as Gong-joo kills the man’s dog and destroys a wicked shrine—to consulting with a Korean exorcist. There are a lot of crows and thunderstorms, and a lot of yelling in Korean.
That said, the film might not be for everyone. I enjoyed the ride, but as with any foreign-language film, it requires a good bit of attention, and as a horror movie, it requires even more attention, as the devil is in the details. Korean is a language that, I’m discovering, is both shrill and guttural, so when a bunch of Koreans start shouting hysterically, it’s extremely grating (I’ve discovered this watching German-language films, too). Just as there are murders and murders of crows in this film, there is a eardrum-murdering decibels of Korean wailing (thus the name, I suppose).
Also, this move is long. Clocking in at a whopping 156 minutes of run-time—the equivalent of a major Marvel release—it’s a lot of reading subtitles and enduring teeth-gnashing. The ending is not a happy one for our protagonist, either, so depending on your disposition, it might not be worth your time.
For a look at folk magic and demon possession in rural South Korea, it’s an interesting and spooky film. The meandering, twisting story, however, could have been told much more effectively in a crisp ninety minutes, and the impact would have been greater. The character of Gong-joo does seem to grow as a father, but all of his attempts to save his family from this supernatural affliction are for not.
Of course, a more sophisticated, tolerant viewer might appreciate the film for the reasons I have disliked it. The film is very well-shot, and it sets up its scary tableaux well. It’s just too long and chaotic for my tastes.