Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Witch: Subversion (2020)

Director: Park Hoon-jung
Notable Cast: Kim Da-mi, Jo Min-su, Choi Woo-shik, Park Hee-soon, Go Min-si, Choi Jung-woo, Oh Mi-hee, Daeun, Kim Byeong-ok

At this point, it might be safe to say that after Parasite swept its Oscar categories that we will – at least for a short time – be living in a post-Parasite world. A world where South Korean cinema will finally be getting some attention from more casual cinephiles and where the mainstream will keep a meandering eye on the big films from the SK industry. For our writers here at Blood Brothers and thus, our readers too, it’s an exciting time to see all of the new fans discover just how wild and awesome SK cinema has been for quite some time. Even films like The Witch: Subversion or The Witch Part 1: Subversion if you go by the original English title for the film, showcases just how dark and twisty the films can be. It’s a film with a ton of heart and mainstream appeal but does not hesitate to take its concept into the incredibly dark and violent recesses of its own psyche – particularly in a brutal and shocking third act. It’s a film that takes such a solid and impressively genre-favored turn that even its mundane narrative of the first two acts is saved. Yes, it’s a twist like this that makes me very excited for new people to discover SK cinema in more depth.

In almost any other area of the world, a film like The Witch would have been a mainstream sell. It has fantasy and science fiction elements of a superhero film, grounded on the emotional core of a young woman looking to hide her talents and save her adopted parents from an evil group looking to find the little girl that escaped their facility. Honestly, it even feels like a mainstream flick for most of its run time. The audience is introduced Ko Ja-yoon, a young girl who is suddenly finding fame when she starts moving up the ranks on a televised singing competition. Her adopted parents and best friend are incredibly supportive, particularly since she comes from a small rural community. She’s a lovable and charming character, aptly portrayed by Kim Da-mi, and the film really digs into her relationship with her parents along with their familial troubles with a mom suffering from dementia. The Witch really digs into laying out the groundwork here, introducing a slew of secondary characters, and introducing a ton of backstory via flashback.

Then the baddies show up and there are plenty of them. From a mysterious evil doctor to a man with a scarred face and a duo of Americans with their own powers, the film still takes its time to set up a lot of character work and plotting. Seeing as the original title features a ‘Part 1’ in it, the fact that it spends so much time establishing a slew of characters isn’t all that surprising. What is surprising through the first two acts is that this is a film directed and co-written by Park Hoon-jung, the gentleman who wrote films like I Saw the Devil and directed really intense and layered crime flicks like New World and V.I.P. Compared to his previous films, the first two acts of The Witch feel like his pitch to make a huge mainstream blockbuster and not something in his usual flair. His talent is still on display here, particularly has he starts to layer in some darker elements as the film progresses. The visuals are sharp, the performances layered and heartfelt, and he loves to use the gimmicks of its characters and plot to nuance the narrative. It feels more mainstream, but the execution is still incredible.  

 It’s not until the final act that The Witch truly feels like Park Hoon-jung’s film. While the first two acts are incredibly well made, it runs the formula of a superhero origin story pretty close to the chest. When it’s revealed where the film is actually going and our slew of villains unleash ‘the witch,’ that’s when the film goes into hyperdrive. Incredibly visceral violence, action and fight choreography that showcases a strong Hong Kong influence, and Park Hoon-jung ably paces it all so that it builds a brilliant sense of tension and atmosphere. It’s heavily influenced by the previously mentioned superhero elements, particularly in its use of CGI (see the Along with the Gods films for another example of using the superhero style in a unique way,) but the combination proves to be quite impactful. Action fans will be immediately drawn into the world and impressed by what The Witch is offering in the last act. It’s a blast.

While the film firmly roots itself as an origin story, leaving its audience on a cliffhanger and rarely wrapping up all of its subplots, The Witch: Subversion is still one of the best action films of the year thus far. The performances are top-notch, the world-building is layered, and the action in the final act is stunning in its blood-spattered insanity. It takes a bit of time to get there, but once the film starts cooking it’s a boiling pot that delivers on all of the tasty action goods.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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