A mini-trend at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal has been movies with Witch in their titles that lack the traditional trappings associated with the term. Takashi Miike’s The LaPlace’s Witch is a sci-fi-tinged crime procedural named after a theoretical scientific phenomenon; Andy Mitton’s quietly chilling The Witch in the Window is more of a ghost story; and Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion (an international premiere at the fest) applies bone-crunching, blood-spurting action to the cinematic trend of super-gifted teens discovering their powers/true origins.
The hyperviolence doesn’t really kick in until past the hour mark, and in fact the heavy genre place it enters at that point is not quite as interesting as the lengthy setup for it. The Witch: Part 1 does confirm its unflinching taste for gore in its swiftly paced opening scene, set in some kind of gloomy scientific facility where young human test subjects are being exterminated. A boy and girl manage to escape the lab, but only the latter makes it beyond the surrounding woods, where she is discovered unconscious by middle-aged Mr. Koo (Choi Jung-woo). He and his wife (Oh Min-hee) raise the girl, whom they name Ja-yoon, as their own, and 10 years later she’s a smart, happy teenager (Kim Da-Mi) with no memory of what was clearly a horrific childhood before the Koos.
Ja-yoon gets up to typical mischief with her bubbly, hypertalkative best friend Myung-hee (Ko Min-shi, who makes her endearing instead of irritating), but she loves her parents and wants to help her adoptive father, whose farm business is facing hard times, take care of her mom, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The possibility of winning big bucks on an American Idol-style TV show compels Ja-yoon and Myung-hee to travel to Seoul for the audition—but during the train trip, Ja-yoon is confronted by an insinuating young man, Gong-ja (Choi Woo-shik), who seems to know more about her than she does. He’s just the first of a series of black-clad strangers who turn up to push Ja-yoon toward realization of where she came from—and of the superhuman abilities she possesses.
As its title makes clear, The Witch Part 1 is an origin story, and in terms of establishing its lead role, it’s an uncommonly good one as written and directed by Park and performed by Kim. Often in this kind of movie, the scenes preceding the protagonist’s awakening to his or her true identity/destiny play like filler, but here, Ja-yoon becomes a fully fleshed-out heroine with strong family and community ties whom we empathize with and root for, even before the stakes in her life become exponentially heightened. When those circumstances force her hidden powers out into the open, the result is a great hero scene that packs extra dramatic force because it happens in front of someone who has known Ja-yoon for years, and suddenly now sees her in a new and frightening light.
Our expectations of Ja-yoon are also successfully subverted as she is plunged back into the cauldron of sadistic experimentation from whence she came, overseen by the malefic Professor Baek (a truly imposing performance by actress Cho Min-soon). Here’s where the charming and compelling specificity of Ja-yoon’s story gets a little lost amidst the familiar requirements of this genre’s form, most unfortunately in an exposition dump that seems to go on forever. Its final revelation triggers the inevitable string of ever-escalating fight scenes, though it’s to the credit of Park and martial arts directors Park Jung-ryul and Kim Jung-min that each and every one is charged with excitement. It’s not giving away much to note that a few of the participants are harder to kill than the average human, and as they spin through the air and bounce off the walls as blood splatters everywhere, there’s a true sense of danger to the brawls that gives them a particularly brutal impact.
Ja-yoon is, needless to say, a very different person at the end of The Witch Part 1 (which includes a Marvel-esque teaser just before the credits roll) than she was at the beginning, and the challenge for Park will be to keep up the empathy for her as she faces newer and presumably bigger challenges and more lethal enemies. It’s to his and Kim’s credit that they’ve set a high bar when it comes to emotionally involving us with their central character, and that they’ve made an opening chapter that also greatly satisfies as a stand-alone movie.