Monday 22 April 2019

The Witch - Part1 - The Subversion (2018 South Korea: Dir Hoon-jung Park)

In action director and screenwriter (he wrote the script for I Saw the Devil) Hoon-jung Park's latest movie, a girl escapes from a medical facility and is taken in by a middle aged couple. The girl has no memory and cannot remember her name; the couple call her Koo Ja-yoon. Ten years later Ja-yoon is a bright young woman who excels in her school studies and has a chirpy best friend, Myung-hee, who encourages her to participate in a TV talent show called 'Birth of a Star.' Ja-yoon is so good she automatically goes through to the quarter finals, but she inches ahead of the competition by supposedly performing some magic tricks, which the viewer does not see.

But things aren't all good in her world; her adopted parents are getting older, and her 'mother' has early onset Alzheimers. More worryingly, a threatening young man accosts Ja-yoon on a train, appearing to know her from the past. She's also suffering from increasingly frequent searing headaches, giving her brief glimpses of her supposed lost memories. For it appears that the people in charge of the facility from which Ja-yoon escaped are keen for her to return, but she has one or two tricks up her sleeve which they weren't expecting.

Part 1 of The Witch, which previewed at Glasgow FrightFest earlier this year, may be advertised as mining John Wick and The X Men films for its thrills, but it also has a jolly good plunder of The Matrix, Scanners, The Fury, Hanna and The Girl With All the Gifts. But like his Korean stablemate Chan-wook Park, director Park is known for dark subject matter, so while this film could have been a fairly straightforward superhero(ine) movie, he instead delivers an intense story of revenge which sits at the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum to most of the caped crusader 'universe' movies.

True it has its fair share of cartoonish bad'uns, not least programme director Dr Baek (Min-soo Jo), a woman so relentlessly mean that she should have been provided with her own moustache to twiddle, but the film's overall tightness and economy of storytelling (even at just over two hours) keeps things focused and resists a descent into cliche.

Da-mi Kim delivers an outstanding performance as Ja-yoon, whether playing the shy schoolgirl of the first half or the full on warrior required in the movie's spectacular final sequences, but without ever sacrificing an essential vulnerability rendered by her odd upbringing (the scene when she first turns the tables on her aggressors is truly shocking). The action scenes are superbly choreographed and, in true Asian cinema style, brutal and graphic, but for once the story is kept fairly uncluttered plot wise. The film's title suggests a franchise in the offing, although my understanding is that no sequels are currently planned. That's a shame because I'd be really keen on seeing this story developed further. Pretty good then.

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