There is nothing quite like South Korean genre cinema. From the tonal mastery that sees them instantly move from pathos to pratfalls, to plots denser but far tastier than year-old fruit cake, to the sheer beauty and brutality of their action sequences, Korean filmmakers create dark magic on a regular basis while the rest of the world bathes in their glory. The Man from Nowhere, Lady Vengeance, The Chaser, Confession of Murder, I Saw the Devil, to name just a few. Last year’s most deliriously thrilling export was The Villainess, a film that pairs an elaborately convoluted story with mesmerizing fights and action set-pieces, and now 2018 has found its own kinetic masterclass from Korea.
A dark and no longer sterile medical facility sees its walls turned red as adult attendees and child wards are slaughtered. Two kids escape into the surrounding woods, but while the boy is caught the girl makes it to an old couple’s farm before collapsing in silence. They take her in, and a decade later Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) is a happy high-schooler using her charm and wits to help keep her adoptive parents farm in the black. An opportunity arrives in a televised singing contest held in a nearby city, but while Ja-yoon’s after the prize money it’s unwanted attention she finds instead.
The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion is a mealy mouthful of a title, but it’s worth mumbling along with en route to one hell of an action/thriller. Writer/director Park Hoon-jung previously delivered Korean thrillers as varied as New World, The Tiger, and V.I.P., but it’s his script for Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil that he’s currently most revered for. The Witch might just change that as it teases elements of Nikita, Psychokinesis, X-Men, Hanna, and last year’s brilliant Thelma.
Overly convoluted plots are typically a death knell for action movies as they slow things down and risk losing audiences, but Korean cinema has a knack for loading the screen with story turns and dramatic reveals one atop the next that elevate the fun rather than bog it down. Here we’re gifted with amnesia, secret government training, parental mysteries, competing abilities, and an amateur singing competition, and all of it swirls together into a concoction that’s both grimly dramatic and blistering fun.
I’m avoiding the majority of the plot details as the genre maelstrom is best experienced first-hand, but just know that the story goes both where you expect and where you don’t. Exposition explaining it all is repetitive and overwrought at times, but happily the chaos and antics surrounding it are typically plenty distracting so as to make it forgivable.
The film is a stylish joy throughout, but its two biggest strengths are its action and its lead. Fight scenes are fast and mean with sharply choreographed brawls sending characters into walls and beyond, and the conflicts range from hand to hand combat to gun play to other more specialized abilities. Park captures the sequences with an eye for detail and effect, and while most of the action is inside tight quarters it never fails to impress thanks to a combination of execution and Kim Young-ho‘s cinematography.
As the only film on Kim Da-mi’s IMDB page this is one hell of a calling card, and in addition to a sequel she should probably expect more offers soon. She convinces on the action front — thanks in part to the magic of film-making — but just as importantly she offers an incredibly compelling performance as a teenager suddenly thrust into situations beyond her expectation or understanding. Her distress at her parents’ dilemma is tangible, and it’s only heightened by the arrival of assassins, hit squads, and killers. (Redundant, maybe, but there are a lot of them!)
As the title states, The Witch is a part one, and while it delivers a highly satisfying whole its ending suggests a lot more fun to come. Hopefully soon…