AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL HD: NOW, from SIGNATURE ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 125 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
An eight year old young girl escapes an unexplained bloodbath from an isolated facility in the middle of the night, and Dr. Baek and her men lose her. After a older couple find her unconscious on their property the next morning, they take her in and raise her as their daughter. Ten years pass and her parents are dealing with health and financial issues. Her best friend Myung-Hee has her audition for a talent show. She does well and even performs some kind of “magic trick” whilst on TV, but she begins to have terrible headaches, and then strange people start to appear, people who claim to know her….
I’m not sure that The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion has more than an original bone [okay, maybe two or three] in its body. As I watched, I was reminded of Hanna, Lucy, The Fury and several others, and at times I wondered if this was a live action variant of the anime Elfen Lied. The biggest influence though seems to be Marvel, and not just X-Men but TV shows like Runaways and The Gifted, but channeled in such a way that the result is intended to feel fresh – and indeed it does for some of the film – though certainly not all of it as even the most inattentive viewer will probably guess many of the turns of the story and even utter a sigh as each familiar element or plot device is wheeled out. And, while I do love a good build-up and certainly don’t require continual action, and am also used to the way Korean films like to suddenly take a left term in a supposed “action” movie and become something different for a while [in a way it’s part of the fun], a fair bit of the first three quarters is rather redundant, especially when it seems to be just ticking off the cliches. Yet there’s still much to recommend it, such as an astonishing turn from Kim Da-mi who was chosen after auditioning 1,200 candidates, a solid emotional dimension so you do “care”, reasonably if hardly earth shattering action scenes, and – well – if you like that kind of thing [we all do at Horror Cult Films from time to time], a hell of a lot of graphic violence and blood being thrown around.
The opening titles set a stark, even disturbing tone, as shots of historical artwork leads to photographs of children in some kind of building where they’re having something done to them. There’s shades of the upsetting flashbacks in Peeping Tom here, as well as of course the first X-Men film. A woman walking down a corridor takes us to a room where blood is everywhere and some bodies have been covered up. Something really messy has taken place here. “The head, shoot the head, how many times do I have to tell you idiots” says the woman seemingly in charge, Dr. Baek [though it’s not zombies we’re dealing with here], while somebody is heard to batter a corpse for some unexplained reason. Cut to a young girl fleeing for her life. Baek and co. soon find a young boy who obviously escaped too, but the girl is taken in by a maturely aged couplev who call her Koo Ja-yoon, something which adds a fairy tale aspect to things. Cut to the present day, and the girl is a pretty 18 year old, using said prettiness to get some free fodder for her adopted dad’s farm from the local shop where the owner’s son clearly fancies her. She’s mostly quite quiet and even studious though, at least compared with her best friend Myung-Hee who is the more confident and even flirty one. We get a real sense of a teen friendship here, rife with bickering and even genuine rivalry yet still based on genuine liking and affection. This is just as well, as much of the first third of this film is centered around them as our heroine [well, that could eventually be putting it mildly] wins her audition and gets the money to go to Seoul and enter a competition. Her choice of song is neat, but she also performs some kind of trick that we only see much later on in flashback. Director Park Hoon-jung certainly exhibits confidence to not just make us wait an hour before the first action scene [and even that’s pretty brief], but to not even let us see the act that wows the judges and seemingly alerts a load of baddies!
Still, there’s a great example of how to show character through somebody’s actions as Myung-Hee immediately acts like her mate’s bodyguard and even manager. She cares for her friend and wants her to succeed, but also wants to be in the limelight and even exert some kind of control. Ko Min-shi largely functions as the sole comic relief in what is a pretty grim tale, yet she also comes across as a normal teenager just being a teenager. Ja-yoon is doing all this because the farm her adoptive parents run is struggling to stay afloat and mother is showing early signs of Alzheimer’s, something shown in a couple of nicely balanced scenes which are very sad but restrained. But why is she beginning to suffer from awful headaches? While on the train, Ja-yoon meets a boy sitting across from her who claims he knows her. When she tells him he must be mistaken, he only laughs and calls her a witch [and the word is used a few times later but you may still end up wondering why the film is called what it is]. Myung-hee jumps to her friend’s defense and scares off the boy. At the quarter-finals, Ja-yoon is approached by a group of men in black suits, all with scars across their faces. They try to get her into their car, but Myung-hee once again saves her friend. There seems to be two groups pursuing Ja-yoon, and one of those also appears to be killing off gene researchers and their families. Some of these bad folk seem to have certain abilities, though not all.
While there’s fine acting all-round from the villainous side of things, especially from Choi Woo-shik who somehow manages to make his character’s sudden switches to speaking in English rather sinister though it probably ought to be silly, there are rather too many scenes with these guys [and the odd gal or two], and they not only halt the pacing but lessen the effect of a story that could have done with having a bit more mystery to it, a bit more gradual revealing of what’s going on. We learn too much too early and we can guess much of the rest. Some of the scenes with Dr. Baek especially seem unnecessary despite the excellent performance of Min-soo Jo who somehow manages to give her character hints of humanity even though she really is a cold hearted b**** throughout with no visible remorse for her actions which basically constitute mass child abuse. This film, though running just over two hours, is actually shorter in length than the average Korean effort these days, but I feel that its script could have done with some pruning, at least around the middle section where neither characterisation nor tension would have suffered because there’s not always too much of either about anyway and much of the former seems to be largely brought by the cast to the table. Eventually, following an earlier neck-breaking, Ja-yoon does let loose when it’s required, but what’s interesting is that she not just becomes a lethal killing machine with powers which could be considered supernatural, but also a totally different person.
I guess it’s now the appropriate time to praise Kim Da-mi. She won the award for best actress at the Fantasia film festival in Canada last year, and it was probably an award well deserved. Despite her youth, she is able to show a wide range of emotions and be fairly subtle about it – while also being actually rather frightening when it’s required – which is most of the second half of the film, even though, in a nice touch that nicely pays into the ending, her character’s survival depends on monthly doses of a drug. And her character is given a good twist that does make us re-access what we’ve previously seen and what we’ve been led to believe without seeming silly once you’ve thought about it. And the thrills that we’ve been promised do materialise in the final act, where it’s like watching an‘18′-rated Marvel movie [or should that be a live action anime?] with participants being thrown around and using special powers as well as weapons and martial arts skill, while the amount of blood is very impressive indeed, but sadly mostly CG when people are getting messily killed – though I’ve seen far worse CGI on more expensive productions. It’s still fairly well done on a budget that would probably be equivalent to lunch money for Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jnr., but – I dunno – I guess I’ve seen too much stuff like this these days to be truly impressed. Others will undoubtedly enjoy the Koreans trying their hand at this kind of thing. Typical of a Korean film, the mayhem mostly takes place in grubby underground corridors.
Hoon-jung is not a filmmaker I’ve previously had much experience with, my sole earlier encounter with him being the gruelling revenge flick I Saw The Devil which he scripted. His directorial style and indeed feel seems to be slightly more subdued and dare I say it slightly more‘western’ than some of his temporaries – though don’t worry there are still some quirky touches, like one bad guy noisily chewing his food and slurping his coffee. But The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion may work best if you have yet to do much exploring of Korean cinema, it probably serving as a good gateway film before you get into the real cool and crazy stuff. As it approaches its end, we’re given a rather touching wind up which concludes things well before – yes you’ve guessed it – a final scene which suggests a sequel – and actually a trilogy has been spoken of. And despite all my talk earlier of borrowings and lack of originality, I’m certainly interested enough [Koo Ja-yoon for a start is so fascinating] to look forward to seeing the story continued and hopefully taken down some different pathways. For now, there’s just about enough flair and definitely some fine performances to make The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion worth a purchase, even if you will have seen much of it before.