The Witch: Part 1, The Subversion


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Witch: Part 1, The Subversion
"Though seasoned viewers will see these twists coming, Kim deftly shifts the tone if her performance along with them to keep us guessing."

It begins with a desperate chase through the woods: two small children fleeing a sinister institution, pursued by armed guards. The boy gets caught and returned to captivity. The girl, Ja-yoon, disappears. Subsequently found by a a bereaved elderly couple - the kind of people who rescue lost children in fairy tales - she lives quietly for ten years until her appearance on a talent show brings her back to the attention of some very dangerous people.

Let's get one thing clear from the start, there is absolutely nothing in this story that hasn't been done before, whether in films or video games. Two things make it interesting despite this, Hoon-jung Park's direction and Da-mi Kim's performance in the central role. Park proved himself a capable director of action with 2015's The Tiger and he approaches this film with the same confidence. Again, key parts of the story are set in a rural environment and there he does a good job of setting up dramatic framing yet establishing domestic spaces that feel old, familiar, long-inhabited. It's a good mix for this kind of material, or at least for what it pretends to be before another of its many twists.

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Though seasoned viewers will see these twists coming, Kim deftly shifts the tone of her performance along with them to keep us guessing. How many layers are there to this mysterious girl? Does she remember her past or can she come to do so? Are the strange skills she exhibits inborn or taught, and is she really aware of herself using them? The film's strongest scenes are those in which she interacts with her best friend Myung-Hee (Go Min-Si), capturing the blend of awkwardness, sweetness and obnoxiousness common in girls that age and leaving us emotionally unprepared for what comes next. It's a bold move juxtaposing these painfully realistic scenes with others depicting teenage assassins in the hyper-stylish, cool and ruthless mode we have come to expect from Korean fantasy cinema, forcing the viewer to reconcile the two.

With the first half of the film focused on drama, the subtle placement of clues and the gradual building of tension, the second half really delivers on what many viewers will have been waiting for, with some beautifully choreographed fight scenes and action set pieces as our heroine works her way through a series of minions and end-of-level bosses. Young-Ho Kim and Teo Lee's cinematography does a good job of looking realistic yet illuminating every detail. Following their subdued approach in the first half, this contributes to the impression that Ja-yoon is undergoing a transformation as much physical as psychological.

Many viewers will inevitably feel frustrated by the film because it is so derivative but there's a lot to admire in it. One just hopes that if Park returns to the story (there is, as yet, no confirmation of a Witch: Part 2), he'll take it in a fresh direction. This level of talent deserves that.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2019
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The Witch: Part 1, The Subversion packshot
A nefarious agency has been conducting experiments on children. One of them escapes and goes into hiding with an adopted family. Ten years later, she appears on a talent show, where she's spotted by the bad guys and becomes prey for both her peers and a hit squad.

Director: Park Hoon-jung

Writer: Park Hoon-jung

Starring: Kim Da-mi

Year: 2018

Runtime: 125 minutes

Country: South Korea

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