The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion (South Korea, 2018)

Contemporary South Korean action heroes are always comfortably nestled within the genre specific narrative of their film. Tied to whatever institutional politics and individual conspiracies demanded by the script, it is these frameworks that define the hero’s actions and his dramatic arc.

Writer-director Park Hoon-jung flips this trope on its head in The Witch – Part 1. The Subversion. As the opening credits consist of a black and white montage of toddlers, young children being subject to evidently controversial and unethical scientific experiments only to be immediately killed on order, The Witch opens to a typical South Korean film scene of extreme violence. The young blood-soaked children/mutant creations who put up a fight are dragged away, others are butchered (offscreen) and an eight-year-old girl barely makes her escape into a forest. An idyllic village life welcomes her as she is adopted by an animal farming couple. A decade on, she leads a mundane teenage life.

At eighteen, now named Ja-yoon Koo (Kim Da-mi), the girl is well past that traumatic night, but recurring spells of intense headaches and close-ups of an inked number on her shoulder ensure her childhood will catch up with her. When Ja-yoon puts herself in the public spotlight, her past comes swooping down, vultures baying for her blood. It is here that The Witch takes a curious turn. Park Hoon-jung struggles to create coherent motives for the scientists Dr. Baek (an over the top Jo Min-soo) and Mr. Choi (Park Hee-soon, misguidedly more gangster like) and Sung (Lee Joo-Won), the head of their now dismantled scientific facility that created these young mutants, to bring back Ja-yoon. He lets loose a series of coincidences with stylised fights courtesy a group of renegade mutants, led by a dazzling Choi Woo-shik, who unfittingly resemble a mobster gang and are still licking their wounds from when Ja-yoon struck them as an escaping eight-year-old.

By writing absurdly vague conversations for Baek, Choi and Sung, Park lays to the wayside the systemic politics and transgressions that structure and meaningfully drive these narratives, rendering the characters ineffectual antagonists and convenient expository devices. It is the anarchic battlefield that the mutants (none of whom are ever named) create for their personal vendettas, struggling to regain a sense of normality, where The Witch takes flight. As the unmoored teenagers begin their killings, sadistically scrambling to capture those responsible for their state, the film comes into its element.

South Korean action films have devised their own unique language, using physical spaces and human bodies in creatively debase, bloodied and very vicious ways with a varied choice of extempore weapons. The Witch is no different. As Ja-yoon is led into the now abandoned laboratory building, her enormously distressing childhood cocoon, a sudden reveal frees the story to gleefully leap into the no holds barred, ultra-violent fantastical for the final showdown.

The Witch gives its female characters considerable physical and cerebral might, eliciting pitch-perfect performances from lead Kim and Jung, a nonchalantly murderous mutant. Ja-yoon’s adopted mother (Mi-Hee Oh) is diagnosed with early dementia but rather than sentimentality, her medical condition is weaponised to sear her relationship with her daughter, further fracturing any hope Da-mi has of living happily with her family.

Park’s attempt to thematically disrupt well-trodden genre tropes takes about two hours, running the risk of overstaying its welcome and becoming an empty spectacle of mutants nastily going upon each other and interfering humans. Fortunately, concise dramatic setups and brisk editing just about manage to save the day.

The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion is distributed in the US by Well Go USA Entertainment.