Director Park Hoon-jung gives us Korea’s answer to the Weapon X program in this supernatural action sci-fi.
“My friend’s not weird. She’s normal.”
At a Q&A following the screening of his film The Witch (or rather The Witch part one: The Subversion), director Park Hoon-jung told the audience, in response to his varied work portfolio: “I like genre films”. And true this seems to be. As a screenwriter and director he has worked on period dramas, gangster thrillers and crime movies – even wrote the script for Kim Jee-woon’s criminally underappreciated I Saw the Devil. So knowing that his follow-up project The Witch was going to be a science fiction action horror did not come as too much of a surprise.
After an opening sequence which features a group of thugs beating the hell out of and capturing children escaping from a secret government facility, we see our main character: Ja-yoon (then 8 years old), one of those escapees who stumbles into the home of two cattle ranchers (Choi Jung-woo and Oh Mi-hee). She seems to suffer from amnesia of anything from before that time, but still grows up into a well-balanced young woman (Kim Da-mi). After successfully auditioning for a singing talent show (to save her farm from going bust, of course), she attracts the attention of Dr Baek (Jo Min-su), the head researcher at the government facility which genetically modifies children to become superhuman, who has been hunting her for ten years. Along with her right-hand man Choi (Park Hee-soon) and superpowered minion Nobleman (Choi Woo-shik), she tries to track down and capture her one, missing “child”.
Right off the bat, one might feel that The Witch has something of a standard Hollywood blockbuster vibe to it, and you’d be right. It takes a lot of story and pacing cues from Western norms, which ultimately makes for a more accessible film, but one that doesn’t feel as unique. It’s a bit like Psychokinesis in that regard, except while that film was unapologetically a blockbuster through and through, The Witch tries to subvert – hey, there’s that subtitle – it, at least a little.
But first, props to newcomter Kim Da-mi who absolutely smashes the role and imbues Ja-yoon with such credibility when she plays both the frightened, confused version of the character and the one where she unleashes her powers. She steals the show in her scenes, but it’s not say that the others don’t do their share. From Park Hee-soon’s calm and cool performance as the underutilised Mr Choi to the bubbly, immensely likeable best friend played by Go Min-si, there isn’t a role that isn’t filled by the best actor available. Choi Woo-shik especially shines as the equally friendly and sadistic Nobleman character. It’s only a shame that, for all its really great villains, none of them really get much screentime or any motivation for doing what they are.
The weakest part of the film by far is the two or three scenes of boring science technobabble. You know the ones, which attempt to use basic neuroscience terms to justify giving people superpowers with brain surgery. It’s the “ten percent of your brain” argument which I think is even mentioned – of only in passing. However, I chose to ignore all of that which probably made for a far more enjoyable watching experience. Because I’m not here to watch a Korean remake of Lucy (a comparison which is damn near impossible to ignore) because, y’know, I could have just watched Lucy instead.
Where The Witch’s filmmaking shines is in its opening tensions and the slowly growing threat. Being thrown into Ja-yoon’s shoes and seeing it from her point of view makes for relatable viewing and, in fact, if the story had developed a bit differently, it might even have been more beneficial for director Park to not have shown the opening scenes and instead start with an 8-year-old Ja-yoon be found by her future adopted family. The way the story proceeds, though, I understand why the opening had to be shown, but it somewhat kills the suspense and doesn’t throw us into the turmoil, but rather leaves us wondering when it’ll happen.
Secondly, it does bloody, bombastic violence really well, offering up countless skull crushes, neck snaps and headshots. The tonal shift from one half of the movie to the other is … definitely jarring but once you get past the pacing whiplash and adjust yourself to where the movie’s going you’ll be happy for the film to get into something new. And as much as I’ve mentioned the film’s inescapably Western feel, it’s cool to see this level of brutal violence in what is effectively a superhero film. Deadpool was too funny and Blade never quite got its violence right. But a comparison to Logan might be fitting here: for its bloody fight scenes, and of course because it’s about a violent, genetically-modified killer girl.
I’m interested if a bit hesitant to see where part two (and any future instalments) go from here. The way The Witch leaves its story suggests there’s a lot more to say, but it will be hard to keep the stakes high when your main character is a seemingly unkillable Jean Grey type. The way we see this movie will hinge largely on how the subsequent entries in the franchise fare. But for what it is, The Witch might not be anything mind-blowing, but if you’re a bit tired of the standard superhero stuff we’re getting and are looking for something that at least tries to inject moments of horror, suspense and explosive violence throughout, then it might just be for you.
Verdict: It’s never as fresh or as smart as it thinks it is, but The Witch (part one) definitely entertains
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Superpowers: Vaguely defined at best
Villain cars: black with tinted windows for maximum effect
Insult of the day: Shrew
The Witch (2018)
Also known as: 마녀 Manyeo
Director: Park Hoon-jung
Writer: Park Hoon-jung
Kim Da-mi – Ja-yoon
Jo Min-su – Dr. Baek
Choi Woo-shik – Nobleman
Park Hee-soon – Mr. Choi
Go Min-si – Myung-hee
Kim Byeong-ok – Police Officer Do
Choi Jung-woo – Goo
Oh Mi-hee – Goo’s wife
Daeun – Girl with long hair