The Witch: Part 1 — The Subversion opens with Ja-Yoon (played by Kim Ha-Na as a child, Da-mi Kim as an adult) escaping a facility. It’s never made clear who exactly owns or runs this facility, but it’s familiar. A nondescript building where “gifted” children are taken to be turned into assets. Not Xavier’s mansion, but the place the X-Men bust for mutant’s rights violations. It’s a promising start to a film that has great action but gets derailed by a slow first act.
From there, Ja-Yoon is found by two farmers, who raise her as their own. The film fast forwards ten years. Ja-Yoon is a teenager now who claims to have no memories of her life before the farm. Her mother has dementia. The medical bills are stacking up while the price of cattle is going down. Her best friend, Myung-Hee (Go Min-Si) has the solution: Ja-Yoon should go on the nationally televised singing competition Birth of a Star to win the money for her mother’s treatment.
It’s insufferably cute, and it might work if it had been shot better. Director-writer Hoon-jung Park (who also wrote the excellent I Saw the Devil) puts too much weight on the central mystery, playing all of his cards too close to the vest. At the end of Ja-Yoon’s performance, the judges ask her if she has any other talents and she shows them her power. It reveals to the institution she escaped that she’s still out there and alive, but is shot so that viewers don’t see what the power is.
What makes the decision so strange is that the power’s nature is fairly obvious. Imagine listening to an hour long joke when you know the punchline. Watching The Witch: Part 1 — The Subversion is something like that.
Like other Korean films — Parasite, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Wailing, and The Divine Fury to name a few— The Witch: Part 1 — The Subversion jumps between genres. What starts out as the story of a star (albeit one who escaped from a supervillain training camp) being discovered turns into an action movie in the second hour. On the way to and from Ja-Yoon’s second appearance on Birth of a Star, Park introduces the different groups that are after her.
Two opposing factions from within the institute want her back. The previously mentioned Parasite’s star Woo-sik Choi stars as the unnamed leader (credited as “Male English-Speaking Witch”) of a group of powered escapees who are also chasing her. He’s after Ja-Yoon for revenge. His performance is one of the highlights of the film. He brings a pitch-perfect goofy, supervillain energy to everything he does. It’s a pleasure to watch him exude evil.
It’s not enough to overcome the slow start, but the fight scenes are pretty damn cool. Park elects to go more of the 2000s realistic fight scenes, full of chaotic quick hits. Many of the combatants are powered, and it’s fun to watch them dismantle squads of stormtrooper style fodder. It’s also great to see Ja-Yoon beat the everliving s*** out of people. She lives the kind of power fantasy that’s normally reserved for male characters.
Those fights might have been enough to make up for the slow start and the two-dimensional characters if it weren’t for the twist, which I won’t spoil. Good twists rely on point of view. Bruce Willis’s Malcom Crowe in the classic The Sixth Sense doesn’t know he’s dead. M. Night Shyamalan isn’t tricking his viewers. He’s showing us the world through Crowe’s eyes. And when the big reveal comes, the audience’s shock is Crowe’s shock too. It works because the viewer’s understanding and the character’s understanding changes together. Withholding information that the main character knows makes it impossible to feel what they’re feeling, and the reveal inevitably falls flat, which is what happens in The Witch: Part 1—The Subversion.
Wicked Rating – 4/10
Director: Hoon-jung Park
Writer: Hoon-jung Park
Stars: Da-mi Kim, Woo-sik Choi, Da-mi Kim
Release Date: March 10, 2020 (Digital and Blu-ray)
Studio/Production Company: Peppermint & Company