In a sleepy Korean hamlet there is suddenly an onset of a series of disturbing murders, all committed by individuals seemingly driven mad, all left catatonic at the scene of the crime with red-rimmed eyes, evidence-splattered clothes, and muttering disquietly to themselves. Enter bumbling police sergeant Jong-gu (Do Wan Kwak), more concerned with getting a bite of breakfast to eat rather than arriving at a crime scene in a timely manner. In fact, he's eager to pass on the grunt work to other men and is little concerned with motives until his precocious daughter begins to exhibit the same symptoms that befell the earlier culprits.
The narrative gets as murky as motives in a film that keeps tensions high and intellects stimulated. It's a case of the doubtful chicken and the egg, where we're not sure if the punishment or the suspicion come first. Although Goksung bears resemblance to the classic The Exorcist, rather than turning to the church to help, the town priest denies Jong-bu assistance, ironically advising him to disbelieve anything he hasn't seen with his own eyes. He's one of the few to do so, actually -- key points in the movie ask Jong-bu to trust blindly usually without offering motivation or proof. As the audience, we're as uncertain as he is on what is the right path, even though the stakes are far less for us as bystanders.
But this is a movie where an empty fridge is supposed to bear proof -- much like an empty grave behind a rolled stone, where an antagonist is compared to a fisher of men, and proof of doubt must be disproved before the third crowing of a rooster.
Like so many good Korean films, director Hong-jin Na balances a fine line between dark humor and horror and nothing is ever done cheaply -- whether it's a gore-splattered scene or a whodunnit fart joke. The laughs can disquiet as much as the bleakness of the narrative, and through it all Na films a sumptuous film that relies heavily on natural lighting and no CG. Masterful editing helps propel the movie along, as well as subliminal framing that lingers on our mind more effectively because it's uncertain. Cinematographer Hong Kyung Pyo (Snowpiercer) creates layered, rich landscapes of the South Korean country and helps create the mood of a sodden, disturbing constant torrent of rain.
Goksung is the name of the Korean town the film takes place in, but can also be translated to "wailing", an appropriate title for a film plundered by grief and the hysterical yet eerily recognizable shrieks of the possessed. Goksung is not for the faint of heart, although its bleakness is never a shock and awe tool of the director in the tradition of too many movies I have seen in the past year. Highly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and easily one of my favorite horror movies of recent years. At times we're uncertain whether it's the supernatural or simply human nature casting such an oppressive darkness on our souls, but that could very well be the point.