Fantasia is the rare time of the year when I get to enjoy cinema from across the world. I’m not normally one to watch South Korean horror movies, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I think I will be seeking them out more often. Korean filmmakers seem to be on another level completely. They can reinvent any genre that’s been tired in the West. Looking at the title of The Witch Part 1 – The Subversion, one might suspect that it would be in the realm of horror. But upon viewing, it’s more evident that the film is more in line with a superhero action film.
The Witch Part 1 – The Subversion opens with a bloodbath. A team of mercenaries have slaughtered an entire hospital ward of children, except for an eight-year old girl who manages to escape into the dark woods. Professor Baek, the woman overseeing the mass extermination, tells her death squad to let her go as she’ll most likely die in the woods. The next morning, a cattle farmer discovers the young girl, collapsed and covered in blood. He brings her into his house and calls the doctor, who says that she’ll live, though she’ll probably have no memory of the incident. The farmer and his wife decide to adopt the girl and call her Koo Ja-yoon.
Ten years later, Ja-yoon is all grown up. She’s top of her class and boys fall head over heels for her. Her parents, however, are having difficulties. The price of cattle has dropped and her father can’t afford to pay for feed. Additionally, her mother is showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. At the suggestion of her overly enthusiastic friend Myung-hee, Ja-yoon enters a televised singing contest called Birth of a Star to win money for her parents. She is able to wow the judges with her voice, but gets extra points when she levitates the microphone. Her magic trick rockets her into the quarter-finals to be held in Seoul. However, her television appearance also catches the attention of Professor Baek, surprised to see she survived all those years ago.
While on the train to Seoul, Ja-yoon meets a boy sitting across from her who claims he knows her. When she tells him he must be mistaken, he only laughs and calls her a witch. Myung-hee jumps to her friend’s defense and scares off the boy. At the quarter-finals, Ja-yoon is approached by a group of men in black suits, all with scars across their faces. They try to get her into their car, but Myung-hee once again swoops in to save her friend. There seems to be two factions pursuing Ja-yoon; the older men with scars and a group of teenagers led by Gong-ja, the boy from the train, who have been busy killing gene researchers and their families.
The situation quickly escalates when a paramilitary squad storms Ja-yoon’s home. They hold a knife to Myung-hee’s throat and demand that Ja-yoon reveal her powers. Something wakes up inside Ja-yoon and within seconds, all of the intruders are dead. In walks Gong-ja, laughing and clapping. He says there’s a reason why Ja-yoon aced all of her school exams without studying, why she was able to manipulate boys so easily and why she has an amazing singing ability. Like her, Gong-ja has powers of super strength, speed and telekinesis. He tells Ja-yoon that if he comes with her, no harm will come to her parents and all will be explained. Ja-yoon is brought to a facility, where she comes face to face to Professor Baek.
Any film that starts with the killing of children is not afraid to test the limits. But after such a shocker of an opening, The Witch Part 1- The Subversion takes a while to return to the action. But when the fight scenes begin, it’s all out massacre. Director Park Hoon-jung, credited as the writer of bloody revenge film I Saw The Devil, has crafted an adrenaline-inducing saga that is no less violent.
“..When the fight scenes begin, it’s all out massacre.”
Before the screening, the Fantasia jury announced that Kim Da-mi, who played Ja-yoon, had won the award for best actress. After seeing her in action, I’d have to agree. At such a young age, she was able to a range of emotions, from confused and scared at the beginning, to determined and cunning when Ja-yoon discovers the full potential of her powers. She’s living proof that we need more action films fronted by women. A special shout-out is also in order for Ko Min-shi as the loudmouth best friend Myung-hee, who had the audience in stitches with her quirky antics.
Speaking as a viewer who consumes way too much North American entertainment, The Witch Part 1 – The Subversion has similar tropes of a Hollywood superhero movie. The mass killing of the children at the top of the film reminds me of government targeting mutant children in the X-Men series. As the title suggests, this is only part one of the franchise, though I can’t imagine what more they can do with it, since everything seemed to wrap up in the end. Maybe if I had stayed in the theater long enough, I might have caught a post-credit scene that would clue me into the sequel. It’s highly unlikely though, Korean filmmakers are bit more original than that.
The Witch Part 1 – The Subversion had its international premiere on July 22nd at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
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