The Witch Part 1: the Subversion is the latest directorial effort from the man behind New World and I saw the Devil writer, Park Hoon-Jung, and it is unlike either of those high profile movies. New World is a prominent gangster epic (of comparable stature to A Dirty Carnival), I Saw The Devil is a grim satire of the Korean Revenge narrative that saw Korea garner global recognition and the Witch? Honestly… it’s a little anime.
The movie opens with a nasty scene in which some adults are attempting to kill some children who are part of their illicit underground school, one girl escapes and is saved by collapsing exhausted in the grounds of a well-to-do couple who end up taking her in as their daughter. Fast forward ten years and that little girl now goes by Ja-Yoon (Kim Da-Mi), and best friend to the flighty Myung-Hee (Go Min-Si). Together the two girls have a relatively normal life in the Korean countryside, they talk about boys and are fully committed to Ja-Yoon doing well on a TV talent show. Together they are adorable, there’s nothing complicated about either of them but their friendship is infectious whereby it becomes a joy to just spend time with them. In the second half, tone and direction completely change. Throughout that first hour, Ja-Yoon is shown to be suffering from violent headaches, twin that with the nasty violence of the first scene and we know that this tension is going to explode in some way and soon.
Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, watch any of their film output and the one consistent will be their inconsistency. Western cinema, rather dully if you ask me, establishes one tone and sticks to it like a toy car to its electronic track. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, however, there are more ways to tell a story than by slavishly adhering to a single tonal landscape. I bring this up, as, like any other Korean film, The Witch subverts the slice of life tone (to borrow the anime vernacular) about as dramatically as possible. Throughout the first half, Ja-Yoon is seemingly stalked by a character credited as “Young Man” (Choi Woo-Sik), he looks like a K-pop star but underneath his look, something insidious waits. Eventually, Young Man and his cohorts catch up with our heroine and take her to their HQ for a profound 180.
In that second hour, the film basically becomes a superpowered fight – think last years Pyschokinesis (Netflix) or Volcano High (from peak era Cine Asia). It includes slickly produced super powers, super speed, flashbacks, clockwork orange setups while the big bad explain their plan, people being punched through walls, regenerating from gunshots and conspiracy – a very convoluted conspiracy. As I said previously, very “anime”.
Now, if you are inexperienced with cinema from this part of the world, it doesn’t change a thing – you either think of The Witch as typical for films from that part of the world or two hour long movies with the same characters glued back to back. The result is the same either way, this is an entertaining movie – albeit two different styles of entertainment. Hour one is sweet and charming as you spend time zigzagging between the contemplative quiet of country life and the dreams of pop fame that comes with talent show TV. And the second half is full of beefy, nihilistic violence. Logically and logistically this is at odds with itself as unfortunately fans of the first half may not be fans of the second, and frankly carving up the audience in such a bold way isn’t the wisest of creative decisions.
Whether you like sweet characters or nihilistic beef, the only consistent is the lead actor – Kim Da-Mi. I won’t describe how her role changes, needless to say, hers is a breakout performance. From meek and charming to the Korean ideal of an action star, she rolls with all the punches. She can sing too. Whether or not the writer/director, Park Hoon-Jung, is being satirical is not for me to say – however just like she is bridging a divide between twee and violence she is also bridging a divide between two very different faces of Korean pop culture. There’s the Korean cinema that is exported internationally, and bubble gum Korea – which are mutually exclusive states as they come. As good as Korea is at making stars, they fall into either one group or the other, very rarely do they fit into both. Kim Da-Mi can be and is both and here’s hoping we will be seeing her for a long time to come.