I watched THE WITCH: SUBVERSION after I heard a few good things and read that it’s from the guy who wrote the incredibly upsetting but badass I SAW THE DEVIL. For this one Park Hoon-jung is also the director, as he’s done with several other films I haven’t seen, including the gangster movie NEW WORLD (2013).
I wish I could tell you this was a crass DTV sequel to THE VVITCH. I did initially assume it would be horror, then I heard it was action, but it turns out to be something harder to categorize. Some melodrama, some sci-fi, some carnage. It seems closest to a Y.A. type movie – teen melodrama X-MEN – except, like so many of the other South Korean movies I’ve seen, it gets horrifically violent at times.
For example in the opening scene in a laboratory where everything – the walls, the floors, the security guards, a child’s teddy bear, a body under a tarp – are slathered in blood. Apparently this was done by an 8-year-old girl who is fleeing into the woods E.T. style (pursued by men with dogs and flashlights). She’s covered in blood too, as is the little boy her age who apparently tried to stop her, only to fail and be criticized by the adults in charge, Dr. Baek (Jo Min-su, PIETÀ) and her gum-chewing head of security Mr. Choi (Park Hee-soon, THE AGE OF SHADOWS).
A middle aged couple (Choi Jung-woo [V.I.P.] and Oh Mi-hee [BLOODY REUNION]) find the girl on their farm, get her medical attention, and ten years later they’re raising her as their daughter Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi). She doesn’t seem to remember whatever her traumatic past was, but frequently has migraines, and worries about her parents’ financial troubles and her mom’s symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Her best friend Myung-hee (Go Min-si) – who she humorously bickers with – convinces her she could make money by auditioning for an American Idol style singing show she’s never heard of. “Stop playing with those cows and watch TV for once, bitch!”
“Why do you keep calling me a bitch?”
“Shut it and keep watching, bitch.”
She’s a good singer but her gimmick is that she also does “magic” during her act. By her parents’ response when they see it, we can sense that this is something she shouldn’t be doing on TV. But she continues with the competition, with Myung-hee acting as her excited biggest fan and manager, talking her up to strangers.
A big chunk of the movie is this melodrama about the competition and things (such as her mother’s dementia-related confusion) hinting to her about her secret past, with the underlying mystery of her migraines and powers acting as the ticking bomb under the table. There’s a great scene where they’re on the train to Seoul stuffing their faces with hard boiled eggs when a dreamy boy (Choi Woo-shik, TRAIN TO BUSAN, OKJA, PARASITE) starts laughing at them and claiming to know Ja-yoon. He says cryptic things to her, some in English. Myung-hee takes it as flirting at first, but Ja-yoon seems to sense that he’s threatening her.
We have kind of an idea what’s going on. Obviously she’s some kind of experiment who escaped, Dr. Baek and her people recognized her on TV and are trying to get her back, various fashionable men who are somehow involved are going around committing murders, and eventually these things will all come to a head.
It’s a really good cast, investing real emotion in the situation with these parents and the mother’s sickness, and especially in the friendship of the girls, and the sadness of Myung-hee seeing her friend kill a bunch of dudes and not understanding what’s going on. The scene where they say goodbye to each other got me. And Choi Woo-shik, the son (and end credits song performer!) from PARASITE, makes a really good villain, trying to terrorize her with his smugness and K-pop looks (plus super powers).
We’ve seen many variations on seemingly regular people suddenly discovering they know how to fight and kill, and this is a well done version. There are many scary confrontations between threatening super powered young people, a really exciting reveal and an extensive bloodbath with lots of bloody squibs, heads bashed into cement walls, super-jumps, etc. It sets up these various scary bad guys to walk confidently into danger and have sadistic fun showing off what they can do. Kind of like the super powered fighting of BLADE II but with younger, prettier combatants and way more bloody wounds.
There is one catch. The blu-ray and DVD release from Well Go USA calls it THE WITCH: SUBVERSION, but on Netflix it’s THE WITCH PART 1. THE SUBVERSION. It’s not an abrupt ending – it feels much more finished than ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, for example – but it’s an origin story that then sets up a new situation that would seem stupid if it’s never concluded. Will it be? That’s surprisingly unclear. Though this was released here this year with the “part 1” title, it’s a 2018 film, and so far there seems to be no news of a part 2 in progress. Oh well.