What do you get when you mix a classic Bond villain and some crackpot science into a Korean revenge thriller? You get The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion, an often mesmerizing, occasionally kooky but thoroughly entertaining thriller from Park Hoon-jung. The writer-director probably still best known for penning Kim Jee-woon’s bloody, torture orgy I Saw the Devil reels in the gore here (don’t worry, it’s not totally banished) in order to focus more squarely on the central character’s badass awakening. Park has help in the form of influences ranging from Kick-Ass to Hanna and maybe The Man from Nowhere, and even though he relies on a hoary plot device that is well past its best-by date (we use 100% of our brains, full stop), the concoction he’s come up with is just original enough to earn a place in the Korean crime-revenge-thriller canon.
Warner’s most recent foray into the local market following Kim Jee-woon’s box office hit The Age of Shadows and debuting director Lee Zoo-young’s under-the-radar critical hit A Single Rider would appear to have all the necessary elements for a strong summer showing at home, and a berth at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal in July is likely to kick-start a long, healthy festival run for The Witch overseas. Markets across Asia should be more than welcoming of a polished, franchise-style actioner headlined by a girl from the neighborhood.
The Witch opens in a hospital facility with a wholesale massacre of (grab your pearls) children at the behest of steely Professor Baek (Cho Min-soon, star of Kim Ki-duk’s divisive Pieta). The slaughter unfolds in blue-tinged, neo-noir light, complete with flickering bulbs and slick floors, before the action heads outside where one of just two survivors, a little boy, has been caught by Baek’s right hand, Mr. Choi (Park Hee-soon, doing his best to channel Lee Byung-hun). A girl gets away and collapses on a nearby farm, whose elderly owners, the Koos (Choi Jung-woo and Oh Min-hee), promptly take her in and get her patched up.
Ten years later, the girl, Ja-yoon (relative newcomer Kim Da-mi), is a clever young woman who has her small community—and her adoptive parents—wrapped around her finger. Her only problems seem to be a lack of funds to run the farm with, and a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. A quick fix appears in the form of a reality competition show that Ja-yoon’s bestie Myung-hee (Ko Min-shi) is sure she can win. On the trip to Seoul for the performance, Ja-yoon meets Gong-ja (Choi Woo-shik, Okja), who claims to know her, insisting they have a connection. He eventually leaves her be, but reports his findings to Baek, whose lackeys have been looking for Ja-yoon for a decade. The other is Choi.
Saying more about the occasionally overly-complex story would spoil it, but it is safe to say that given its title and the opening images of witchcraft lore dating from the Middle Ages to wartime human experimentation, The Witch isn’t actually a witch movie, and the title is more metaphoric. That minor quibble (for some) aside, Park’s signature acrobatic and/or creative fights (choreographed by martial arts directors Park Jung-ryul and Kim Jung-min) and set pieces (another greenhouse, industrial-chic concrete hallways) are always in service to the story, never overwhelming it, and that kicks it up a notch at the end of the second act. Kim plays Ja-yoon close to the chest—Is she a psychopath? A mutant? A superhero?—in a nicely modulated performance as a young woman coming into her own and realizing her own power. She steers clear of bratty and precocious center of attention tics too often hoisted on female characters, and layers Ja-yoon with fear, gratitude, resignation and determination as required. Park’s timing couldn’t be better.
By Korean action standards The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion is lean at two hours, but in cramming so much into the narrative it stumbles over itself on more than one occasion; it very often forgets its own internal logic and drags the final showdown out to the breaking point. The sequence’s style, energy and Kim’s coiled glee save it from tipping into overkill. Park has a good eye for visuals and great DPs in Kim Young-ho (Park’s V.I.P., Haeundae) and Lee Teo, yet falls into a “tell” instead of “show” trap for character and narrative momentum; Baek would give Auric Goldfinger a run for his verbose money. If a second part is in the pipeline, as the title suggests, there was no need to rush key revelations. Mowg’s pounding, atmospheric score stands out among impeccable tech specs across the board.
Production company: Gold Moon Film Production
Cast: Kim Da-mi, Cho Min-soo, Choi Woo-shik, Park Hee-soon, Kim Byung-ok, Choi Jung-woo, Ko Min-shi, Oh Min-hee
Director: Park Hoon-jung
Screenwriter: Park Hoon-jung
Producer: Park Hoon-jung, Yeon Young-sik
Executive producer: Oh Hyung-an
Director of photography: Kim Young-ho, Lee Teo
Production designer: Jo Hwa-sung
Costume designer: Jo Sang-kyung
Editor: Kim Chang-ju
World sales: Warner Bros. Korea
No rating, 126 minutes