The Witch (or The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion, aka Manyeo), the first part of a potential trilogy series, tells the story of Ja-Yoon (Da-Mi Kim), a young girl who has grown up living on a small farm with her elderly adoptive parents after escaping some kind of sinister experimentation and murder squad some ten years previously.
The film is very light on details as to what Ja-Yoon went through at the beginning, with opening credits that hint at mysterious experiments on children, but very little else to tell audiences what has happened. Instead, the film spends a good half of its run time teasing out small pieces of this mystery, with secret conversations and mysterious figures that follow Ja-Yoon.
Instead of focusing solely on the mystery of her past, the film chooses to give over a good portion to building Ja-Yoon as a character, letting us get to know her, her parents, friends, and even smaller figures in the periphery of her life. It’s a nice decision on the part of writer/director Hoon-Jung Park, as it helps to build the world and lets us get attached to Ja-Yoon before her world starts to spin out of control.
As with a lot of YA fiction Ja-Yoon is at the centre of an evil plot headed up by a nefarious organisation that is trying to exploit young people for their own gains. It follows a young girl who is ripped from her happy family life, who has to fight against these corrupt conspirators in order to save herself and her family. What The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion does differently, however, is to bring a Korean revenge thriller twist to the proceedings.
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Without spoiling too much of the film, as there are certain expectations it intentionally builds in the audience before quickly pulling the rug out from under you, the sudden shift in its last half is a masterstroke.
The quiet, rural settings of Ja-Yoon’s home life, are gone, replaced with an industrial futurist look, complete with concrete lined labs, corridors with long staircases and high ceilings, and secret bunkers. Ja-Yoon also changes here, revealing a competent heroine beneath the scared teenage girl that we’ve been following. This shift marks a high point in the film, and is sold in large part thanks to the phenomenal acting by Da-Mi Kim, who is able to shift from scared girl to scary killer within seconds.
The other main cast members also bring a lot of great energy to the film, and the villains of the piece are some of the best. Min-Soo Jo is great as the sinister Dr. Baek, the mastermind scientist behind everything that has happened. She’s cold and calculating, trying to manipulate people from behind the scenes, and Min-Soo Jo plays her as a woman used to being the smartest person in the room, and who enjoys flaunting this sense of superiority.
Woo-Sik Choi, referred to in the credits simply as ‘Male English-Speaking Witch’, is great as one of Ja-Yoon’s fellow experimentees, though one raised within the evil organisation. It’s clear that Woo-Sik Choi is having a lot of fun playing the part, and that energy translates into his character, a twisted young man who enjoys being a killer. Both of these characters steal any scene that they’re in, and whilst being used sparingly definitely helped to raise their mystique I would have loved to see more of them.
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The highlight, however, is the sudden shift into brutal action that comes within the last half hour, seeing these characters with super-human abilities fighting not just each other, but scores of soldiers too. These scenes have a visceral kind of beauty to them as people are shot, stabbed, and beaten to death in showers of blood, yet done so with such amazingly choreographed movements that it’s almost like watching a brutal ballet. If the film proves to be a success and we do get more entries into the series I can’t wait to see more of this kind of fighting and action.
A story that is really only setting the stage for things to come, we end up with a heroine that we still don’t really know, who is more than just the caring daughter that we saw in the first half of the film, a dangerous, frightening killer hiding just beneath. It’s not clear if she is even really a good person, and it’s possible that those distinctions don’t really exist within this world, opting instead for everyone to being on some kind of spectrum of grey. Despite these questions the film still delivers a great experience even on it’s own, and if the franchise ended here it would still be a great story.
Similar in a lot of ways to The Raid and the Villains novel series by VE Schwab, this is a film that is sure to draw in people who love superhero films, yet want to experience something different, fans of YA stories with strong female leads, and even action junkies who want to see some amazing fights. A brilliant start to what could be a truly amazing trilogy of films.