The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion (Manyeo)

Korea (2018) Dir. Park Hoon-Jung

Growing up is hard at the best of times, especially when we hit our teens and begin to develop our identities that will take us into adulthood. Now imagine that you discover one day that your life has been a lie – or rather that it had been lost to you following a traumatic experience and wiped from your memory.

A young, blood spattered girl apparently fleeing a violent scene in a remote location is found and taken in by a kindly middle aged farmer Koo (Choi Jung-Woo) and his wife (Oh Mi-Hee). Ten years later, Ja-yoon (Kim Da-Mi) is a cheeky teen helping around the farm, although her parents are now retired with her mother suffering from dementia.

With little income, Ja-yoon decides to enter a TV talent contest as a telekinetic singer, hoping that even the consolation money from the early rounds is enough to pay off the family debts. But as soon as she appears on TV, strange people approach Ja-yoon claiming to know her but she doesn’t know them. Coupled with the odd physical sensations she has been experiencing, Ja-yoon’s life is about to turned upside down.

It’s hard to know whether we should be concerned about films involving young children being experimented on for scientific exploration and/or possible nefarious reasons. It’s been many times in anime – Elfen Lied, Coppelion, Gunslinger Girl – the medium offering that extra layer of detachment in our acceptance of it as fiction, whereas the live action form makes it a little more chilling.

The Witch comes from Park Hoon-Jung, who wrote the gloriously violent I Saw The Devil then took up the director’s chair for crime thriller New World and historical actioner The Tiger. That alone assures us plenty of brutal action, grisly violence and a copious amount of bloodletting, but Park is a dab hand at concocting a compelling story to drive things, albeit with – excuse the pun – a subversive bent.

Ja-yoon it is later revealed was part of a programme of experiments on children to create the perfect being – highly adept at any skill, craft or talent, supreme intelligence, physical prowess, and telekinetic powers. Oh and the ultimate killing machine because you never know when a Jehovah Witness will show up just as you’re having dinner.

But Ja-yoon doesn’t remember any of this; as far as she is concerned, she is a humble farm girl and daughter to Mr. and Mrs. Koo, and best friend to the perky Myung-Hee (Go Min-Si). As the boisterous one with the gift of the gab, Myung-Hee is the driving force behind Ja-yoon entering the talent contest, assuming the role of her “manager”.

She should be annoying but in fact proves to be an amusing and enjoyable sidekick to Ja-yoon creating a rather enduring double act that helps carry the first hour which many will see as bloated. But, there is a reason for this tempered approach, sprinkled with some occasional violence as a similarly powered group of young adults hunt Ja-yoon in a vain effort to resurrect her dormant memories.

We have to wait until the exposition heavy final act for this all to make sense, so some patience is required but Park’s script plants many seeds in the meantime that eventually bloom for the climactic finale. The mysterious organisation is only referred to as “HQ” and in charge is Dr. Baek (Jo Min-Soo), keen to have Ja-yoon return to the fold in time for her departure from HQ.

Dr. Baek has sent the cocky Nobleman (Choi Woo-shik) and his silent but deadly partner (Daeun) to find Ja-yoon, but their capricious need to show off their abilities doesn’t sit well with Mr. Choi (Park Hee-soon), Baek’s former No 1 with a score to settle with his former charges, creating a splinter group and a second interested party in finding Ja-yoon.

That is about as much of the story I can reveal without giving it all away, but there are plenty of layers of intrigue to keep us busy. Some may not get the due attention they deserve but at least they’re not forgotten then reappear at a convenient point. It would have been nice if the Choi/Baek split had more depth, as would a look into Baek’s involvement and motives for her part in this programme but it is what it is.

As we have come to expect from Korean cinema and Park Hoon-Jung in particular, the action is unashamedly gruesome and relentlessly gory, yet never too graphic unless seeing young kids soaked in claret is upsetting for you. There is a little CGI enhancement to the big fight scenes but generally, most of it comes via the cast, employing blades, guns and good old fists and kicks.   

One difference between Asia and Hollywood is how the latter always hams it up in these kinds of films; Park is blessed by a terrific cast who deal in reflecting the nuances such a diverse set of characters bring – the quiet dignity of Choi Jung-Woo’s Mr. Koo, Jo Min-Soo’s mad scientist Dr. Baek, Go Min-Si’s bubbly Myung-hee and Choi Woo-shik’s psychotic pin-up Nobleman.

Standing head and shoulders above them however is Kim Da-Mi, in what is surely a star making performance. She captures the essence of all aspects of Ja-yoon’s complex personality with incredible astuteness for a relative newcomer. The moment when she “awakes” for the first time is a genuine highlight of the film; the physical and emotional switch is both shocking yet flawlessly executed.  

The Witch might superficially seem like a Korean cousin of the Hollywood/anime outings with this theme but this would be doing it a huge disservice given the unique approach Park brings to it. It may take a slower route but the payoff is worth it. The title suggests this is the first of a series yet it works just as well as a standalone film although the idea of a follow up is hard to resist.