When I describe Park Hoon-jung’s best-known work, I Saw The Devil, to people, it often comes across less like a movie that you watch than some kind of strenuous exercise that you have to endure. I Saw The Devil’s running time of about two and a half hours isn’t that long on paper, but it’s so densely packed with violence, misery, and nihilism that it feels like you’ve been in the head of Choi Min-sik’s relentless psychopath, Kyung-chul, for weeks, and a physical exhaustion sets in when the credits finally roll.
Park’s newest project, The Witch Part 1: The Subversion (called simply The Witch in Korean), is, for many reasons, no I Saw The Devil. The violence in The Witch, while still brutal, isn’t quite as extensive as in that film. Don’t get it twisted; this is still a pretty violent film, especially in the second half, but it’s not really at the same level of I Saw The Devil, which is one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen. It’s also a much lighter story, owing a lot to a more restrained, dare I say jaunty, first half.
What The Witch does have over I Saw The Devil, is a whole lot more character building, centered around an extremely strong debut performance from its lead, Kim Da-mi. I’m amazed that this first-time performer is able to carry off such a complex and likeable character, and she’s absolutely the highlight of The Witch. Tasked with having to change, often on a dime, from a naive, giddy, earnest schoolgirl and bashful pop idol to a merciless killing machine, Da-mi navigates this challenge with the ease of a much more experienced actor.
The Witch opens on gruesome footage from the Holocaust that depicts child prisons – hard to watch at any time, but especially in today’s political climate – and experiments being done on those children. Cutting to the present day, we’re introduced to an equally-gruesome hospital for children, where every surface is caked in blood. A child escapes from this facility, pursued by the facility’s head honcho (Jo Min-soo) and her henchman. They eventually abandon their pursuit and decide to report back to their HQ that the child has been “decommissioned”.
The child, Ja-Yoon (Da-mi), is found unconscious and taken in by an elderly couple, and it’s established that she may never regain her memory. Cutting to ten years later, and the now 18-year-old Ja-Yoon helps her father with his struggling farm and her mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s. Needing money for both, and with the support of her best pal and self-appointed manager Myung-hee (Ko Min-shi), Ja-Yoon enters an American Idol kind of talent show, wowing the judges with both her singing and a “magic act” involving telekinesis. Ja-Yoon makes it to the finals, but on the train to the studio, she and Myung-hee meet a mysterious young man, Gong Ja (Choi Woo-sik), who seems to know her. It’s soon established that this young man was also in the facility where Ja-Yoon grew up, and is a total psycho, brutally killing a dude for bumping into him and effortlessly throwing the body off the train.
The idol competition has tipped off the organization running the experiments on the children, who are looking to bring Ja-Yoon back into the fold, as well as Gong Ja’s team of not-X-Men ‘enhanced’ teens who have their own motives. All this is to set up a literally explosive third act where all three factions (and at least one or two superfluous others) meet up in a big hallway to fuck each other up.
The Witch counts among its influences Netflix’s Stranger Things (Ja-Yoon is such an Eleven), Stephen King’s Firestarter, James Cameron’s short-lived series Dark Angel, every X-Men story you’ve ever read or seen, and it even borrows its main conceit from the Bradley Cooper film, Limitless. The titular ‘Subversion’ keeps The Witch from being completely derivative of these other properties, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s breaking much new ground. This is ultimately the kind of raucous midnight movie fare that’s best experienced with an equally-raucous audience, as I’m sure Fantasia will provide, so maybe it’s okay that it’s mostly predictable. There’s lots of easy beats here that I’m certain will be crowd-pleasers, though I have to wonder if Ja-Yoon and her fellow enhanced pals’ abilities could be used to better effect.
Perhaps this is a product of having a Part 1 in the title, but I was left pretty unsatisfied with The Witch. It meanders for too long in the middle of the film, and seems to end just as it starts to get going again. There’s definitely an above-average 90-minute movie in here, but at two hours it feels excessive and large swaths could be cut to make a tighter production. That being said, unlike a lot of similar films, I appreciated that there’s some value in The Witch for repeat viewers. Once you know the ‘subversion’ of the film, it puts earlier scenes and moments into a markedly different context, and Kim Da-mi’s performance does a good job of keeping things close to the belt until the moment of the reveal. There’s an intriguing little breadcrumb trail sprinkled throughout The Witch that’s made just a wee bit too obvious and unsubtle, but whether the film works for you will depend on how well the twist works, because that’s basically the whole crux of the movie. There’s loads of fertile ground and unexplored backstory and unresolved plot threads here for what I assume is an inevitable Part 2, and my hope is that that film pushes the ideas here a lot further, to create something that’s truly subversive.
The Witch Part One: The Subversion premiered at Fantasia on July 22 at 6:45 PM, with a second screening on July 25 at 12:30 PM.