Koo Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) looks like a normal teenage girl. Sure, she’s exceptionally bright and talented, and extraordinarily devoted to her aging parents and their failing farm, but by most measures, she’s an average kid on the cusp of adulthood. Except in Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch: Part 1—The Subversion, she’s also an escaped child soldier with telekinetic powers on the run the government agency that genetically created her in a lab, and she may or may not remember all of that. The result plays like an action-heavy sci-fi/horror version of The Long Kiss Goodnight, with Dark Angel flourishes thrown in for good measure. (And yes, I mean the James Cameron/Jessica Alba show from the late 1990s, and yes, I mean that in a good way.)
Park (writer of I Saw the Devil), who both directs and wrote the script, takes his time to set the stage and build the scaffolding. He lays the groundwork, creates engaging characters and scenarios, and develops emotional bonds. So, by the time the action kicks in, and does it ever kick in, there’s an investment there between the viewer and what’s onscreen. It’s plenty bloody and brutal and un-freaking-hinged, and full of twists and shifts, but the work done earlier gives the rampaging chaos more a more poignant oomph than simply watching cannon fodder villains get dismantled in vicious, gory fashion.
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The two leads drive much of the film. Kim is magnetic as Ja-yoon. As everything goes down; as a mysterious crew of violent, black-clad goons hunt her; and she confronts her past both literally and figuratively, she’s terrified and vulnerable and authentic. At the same time, however, the script and her performance create just enough doubt that you’re never certain. Is she being earnest and can’t really remember her traumatic past? Or is she really that good an actress, calculating to the point where she meticulously researched and picked out the family she lives with? She’s layered and evolves in curious ways, and it’s a fantastic performance to watch.
And on the other side, there’s the primary antagonist (Parasite’s Choi Woo-shik), a childhood co-patient of Ja-yoon. He’s charming and terrifying, affable and chilling. Choi plays him with an almost cold vampiric glee. He and Ja-yoon share the most memorable exchanges, playful and probing and downright mean. Witnessing them together crackles with electricity.
While the early going of The Witch concerns itself with developing story, characters, and themes, rather than action, once it picks up momentum, it delivers the goods. Ja-yoon tangling with various factions and generations of these warriors—there’s also a nice undercurrent of jealousy, resentment, and animosity among the groups—is stylish, inventive, and fierce as all hell. There’s a definite Matrix influence as the hyper-stylized players soar through the air, run across walls, and pummel each other into oblivion. And though it wears its influences proudly, the action maintains a freshness and energy to go along with the copious amounts of blood.
As much as the first hour sets the table for the dinner to come, things do get a touch long and repetitious—it gets way too into the behind-the-scenes details of a reality TV show singing competition. And the big reveal scene becomes overly talky and long-winded, doling out specifics that aren’t really necessary and don’t add much if any texture that’s not already there.
Still, those are minor hiccups. With a clever shift that pulls out the rug, one that rewrites and redefines everything that came before—in a good, earned way, not a cop-out, plot-twist-out-of-nowhere way—The Witch: Part 1—The Subversion does what it promises, subverting expectations and delivering a kick-ass, bloody action/horror/sci-fi hybrid. This is supposedly the first chapter in a trilogy, and if we get two more of these, we should count ourselves blessed. (Just FYI, it’s also on Netflix right now. You know what to do.) [Grade: A-]