GFF Frightfest: ‘The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion’

❉ Korean genre-mashup pinballs between Bourne style actioner, X-Men style origin story and teen melodrama.

Hoon-jung Park is known mainly in the western cinema going world for providing the screenplay for the spectacularly bloodthirsty South Korean revenge thriller I Saw the Devil. A film that subverted the usual rules of revenge cinema and stretched itself to extremes in terms of violent one-upmanship that has still to be matched in the years since its release. Park, directing from his own screenplay here, literally makes subversion the name of the game here with this Korean actioner that is 25% Bourne style actioner, 25% X-Men style origin story and 50% teen melodrama. Said subversion takes an age to get through however as the film pinballs between genres in a manner that frustrates more often than it excites.

“This is an entertaining film… mainly due to the charming and humorous performances of Kim and Go Min-see.”

A grim credits sequence with disturbingly detailed, and more often than not seemingly authentic, photos of medical experimentation on children kicks things off suggesting that the tone being set is for a horror film. However, the audience is instead treated to the story of teenage girl Ja-yoon (Kim Da Mi) who has been raised on a farm since escaping from a sinister institution. With the help and encouragement of her friend Myung-hee, Ja-yoon decides to enter a television talent contest. Such exposure however brings back figures, some with seemingly psychic skills and inhuman strength, from the past who have been searching for her since her escape. And then she sings a rock version of Danny Boy on telly. Yup!

When done well genre mash-ups can be an invigorating jolt, the recent Overlord combined World War 2 action flick with body horror to satisfying results and it is hard to forget the genuine surprise some viewers experienced when they somehow did not know that From Dusk ‘til Dawn involved a cadre of vampires popping in halfway through to steer the film in an entirely new direction. The problem with The Witch Part 1 is that it holds back and suppresses its true nature for far too long. When it makes it big reveal it is to a total lack of surprise as it has made too many clumsily inserted allusions already.

The film rewards its patient viewers with an extended set piece in its closing act of super-powered, inventive violence and action. The titular subversion comes into play here in a way that reveals a level of trickery that seems more of a commentary and a self-satisfied “hey, look what I just did!” on the scriptwriter’s part than a genuinely-earned character or plot aspect. That being said though this is an entertaining film. The teen melodrama part of the film, as stale and as halting as it is, succeeds mainly due to the charming and humorous performances of Kim and Go Min-see as her best friend/talent manager. And that deadpan rock cover version of Danny Boy is a genuine deadpan highlight.

The violence when it comes is inventively bloody although the necessary aid of CGI in the film’s closing act adds a filter of unreality that robs it of the in your face and sometimes dangerous feeling nature that the best Eastern action cinema regularly offers up, examples being recent Frightfest favourite The Villainess and The Night Comes for Us. However, there is a high level of satisfaction in watching Ja-yoon face down a plethora of villains, including Choi Woo-shik as Nobleman, who comes across as a smug mix of K-Pop idol and sadistic ’80s action villain.

It is hard to say by the films end what Part 2 will have to offer us, but it is certainly an intriguing proposition. Bloody violence will no doubt be involved but can we expect more switcheroo-ing between different genres? Whatever we get here’s hoping that it involves more out-of-place cover versions of traditional Irish favourites.

❉ ‘The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion’ received its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Saturday 2 March, as part of Arrow Video FrightFest Glasgow 2019.

❉ ‘The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion’ Director: Hoon-jung Park. Cast: Woo-sik Choi, Min-soo Jo, Da-mi Kim. South Korea 2018. 125 mins. N/C 18+

❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.

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