Witch: Part 1 - The Subversion, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/12/18 09:34:46

"You may have seen a lot of it before, but it's still top-tier action."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Well, okay, you might think as you watch the awkwardly named and punctuated "The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion", this is kind of an okay young-adult riff on genetically engineered superhumans, but I kind of feel like I've seen it all before, with the shadowy agencies and people in black suits and the hiding things we can kind of predict. Then there's a sudden, extremely violent action scene, and you remember, oh, that's right, this is a South Korean action movie. You still might not be ready for just how much all hell breaks loose in final act, at which point your eyes will probably go really big and you'll want to now why you can't get "Part 2" right now.

To be fair, it starts in dark, bloody fashion, revealing the aftermath of something allowing two children to escape from some sort of lab with security types in pursuit, with the kids' safety not apparently their first concern. The boy is recaptured but the girl, apparently gravely injured, is found by a childless couple on a farm (Choi Jung-woo & Oh Mi-hee). She doesn't remember anything, but grows up smart and athletic, kind of shy until accompanying her friend Do Myung-hee (Go Min-si) a auditions for the Birth of a Star show. Suffice it to say, when someone sees Koo Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) on TV, alarms get set off and it's not long before ruthless hunter Mr. Choi (Park Hee-soon) and his ruthless team of teenagers are showing up at the Koo farm.

There was a point where one might have idly wondered just how popular American superhero comics and their tropes are in South Korea when seeing a movie open with a powerful child being found and taken in by a couple salt-of-the-earth farmers, but by now it's probably pretty safe to assume that yeah, everyone in South Korea knows exactly what writer/director Park Hoon-jung is riffing on there (amusingly, the film was actually made by DC Comics parent Warner Brothers's Korean division). As you might expect from the "subversion" in the film's English-language title, Park is not particularly content to just do an upbeat Korean take on Superman, although the route he does go is also kind of familiar, from the wardrobe to the general mad-scientist set-up, right down to there being someone out there who knows there is more to Ja-yoon than even the person in charge of the program today knows. Park is nimble enough that he never seems to be slavishly following a blueprint or undercutting his intent by being self-referential.

Inventive ruthlessness in the action helps with that; the audience knows from the opening that Park is willing to make a mess, but it's not until Mr. Choi is threatening the Koos that they see not just how unbounded the villains are but just how much Ja-yoon has been holding back. Park and his stunt team have established just enough potential to make it a thrill when the fighting leaps to the superhuman, escalating until a truly fantastic climax as Ja-yoon eventually returns to the compound where she was made, which may be just another set of underground corridors but always seems perfectly shaped and shot, with enough room to maneuver three-dimensionally and despite also being a pipe that constantly brings her new opponents. Kim Da-mi, Choi Woo-sik, and their doubles don't waste movement, making for some impressive action.

That Ja-yoon fights so efficiently is a reflection of what she's up to between action beats, where Kim Da-mi is especially impressive to watch. She plays a familiar young-adult heroine through the first half of the film, but does it well enough to get the audience good and invested for when things go crazy, bringing warmth to the scenes with her foster parents and Go Min-si as Ja-yoon's fast-talking friend, as well as a bit of spark when Choi Woo-sik first shows up as one of the other teens looking for her. It's good enough that when it becomes clear that the Koos' good influence can't entirely negate that this program wanted to produce agents that were not just fast and strong but also kind of highly focused psychopaths, it's jarring but not a break, and she's a lot of fun to watch match the other young actors with just enough connection to the start to make her feel different enough to be a quality anti-hero.

There's no arguing that this movie is kind of derivative and familiar, plot-wise, but South Korea does not do this sort of thing halfway, and the action and plot twists in the back stretch are big and nuts, with that nice performance by Kim Da-mi becoming something even more delightfully crazy. Bring on Part 2.

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