"My life began with hatred and loathing. Funny, isn't it?
I am a witch. A witch will never be loved anywhere in the world...
Evil thoughts have enough power to end life altogether.
Wickedness cannot be hidden, even if you try..."
Sae-young (Park Ju-hee) is rather an outsider at her place of work. While the rest of her colleagues are treated largely with respect by female boss Lee-sun (Na Soo-yoon) - mostly as a result of their sycophantic, faux compliments; shameless fawning; and even ingratiating gift giving - Sae-young is subjected to little but thinly veiled derision, and virtual ostracisation into the bargain.
When the quality of her work is called into question, Sae-young promises to try harder in future leading Lee-sun to sarcastically suggest that if she truly is serious about meeting the 8pm deadline for a project she should cut off one of her fingers if she fails. To Lee-sun's amazement, Sae-young agrees to the proposition on the condition that if she succeeds in completing the work on time Lee-sun will agree to sacrifice one of her own digits, instead, and so stunned is Lee-sun by this that she accedes, almost without thinking.
However, though the realisation of what she may have just agreed to quickly begins to unsettle Lee-sun, the findings of the resultant background check on her employee utterly chill her to the bone. For, talking to a number of Sae-young's ex-friends and acquaintances, some claim she is a witch while others believe she is possessed by the dead, but all agree Sae-young is evil personified and that standing up to her can be fatal...
The first visuals of 'The Wicked' consist of a short montage of inverted cityscapes, accompanied by tension filled ominous musical strings, and to begin with it is unclear whether we are viewing the reflection of buildings in water or if the images have been deliberately inverted; rotated through 180° or, if you like, physically and thematically twisted. Once the setting shifts to a long, out of focus corridor we discover that not only is the latter is the case - Sae-young is seen approaching from a distance, upside down; the camera frame slowly rotating while the image comes into focus - but also that we have been led astray to an even greater degree by our unthinking assumptions that we can believe how things appear from a cursory glance in our belief that we are simply watching through a camera lens when in reality we are looking at a scene filmed in a mirror. Little more than a minute of the running time has passed at this point, but one of the major themes of 'The Wicked' has already been placed right in front of our eyes - that is, the idea that in the modern world situations (whether workplace related, social or indeed citywide) often differ greatly from initial appearances and the fact that our perceptions of them are radically influenced by the assumptions we inherently make in explaining what we see and hear (more on this, shortly) - though here too we are, for a time, unaware of this thematic reference and will remain so until much later in proceedings.
The beautifully playful and funny main opening credits sequence that immediately follows both visually and aurally offsets the previous ominous undertones (are you perhaps sensing a theme yet?) perfectly: Impish music accompanies Sae-young as she makes coffee for Lee-sun, cleans (or more accurately pokes around) her boss' workstation - credit text appearing to drip into the coffee pot or be wiped from a desktop by Sae-young's dusting cloth, etc. - and as Sae-young, almost without hesitation, uses Lee-sun's toothbrush to clean the soles of her shoes it becomes clear that 'wicked' will not only define Sae-young's character and the film's narrative in a horror sense but also describe the wonderfully dark humour with which 'The Wicked' is imbued.
The credits sequence coming to a deliberately jarring end (mid shoe cleaning) with the music grinding to a sudden halt, we are abruptly and again humorously taken to Lee-sun's chastisement of Sae-young in relation to her work, and thus the narrative tale of 'The Wicked' begins in earnest.
For a time, as we gradually become familiar with the main characters, it appears that perhaps Lee-sun is the 'wicked' referred to in the film's title but though she is indeed manipulative; demanding; utterly self-serving; and altogether ready to use anyone for her own gratification, she is in reality just a normal person with the natural flaws of any human being. Her personality is far more used to underline the aforementioned theme of things rarely being as they appear on the surface, and her ability to elicit fawning adoration (fake or not) from those around her not only places her at odds with Sae-young but as such also puts her in mortal danger.
For, not only is Sae-young unable to tell the difference between truthful comments and lies/sarcasm - seen in her reaction to Lee-sun's proposition regarding the sacrificing of a finger; and in her interactions with female colleague So-jin in which So-jin at one point jokingly claims that she likes Sae-young as much as she obviously likes her, only to rebuke her when Sae-young takes her at her word and tries to kiss her; etc - but she also mistakes her colleagues' sycophantic treatment of Lee-sun as love; the one emotion she will never allow others to experience (at any violent cost) as a result of having been denied it herself since youth, or so she thinks. In fact, that very (perceived) denial is shown to be a twisted belief that has festered and grown in Sae-young's mind since her childhood; destroying her mental balance irrevocably, in the process: When Sae-young was just a young girl, her father devoting the majority of his time to taking care of her terribly sick sister in one fell swoop convinced the impressionable child that she was utterly hated by her parents and would clearly (to her mind) never be loved, leading to her insatiable need to constantly test others to see if they care about her - her very own actions (and consistent lying to the extent that she comes to believe her own fictitious stories) ensuring that can never be the case from the outset and giving her, from her increasingly twisted perspective, a perfectly valid reason for bloody retribution.
So, is Sae-young truly an evil witch casting spells to cause pain to (and/or the death of) others or just the mentally twisted product of an uncaring world filled with selfishness, sarcasm and lies and as such simply misunderstood and misrepresented by others? That ultimately is up to each viewer to learn for themselves at the end of this deeply creepy tale, but either way one thing is for sure: The journey to that discovery is one as utterly gripping as it is perfectly unsettling and even at times wickedly funny.
There are, however, just a couple of niggles that I feel are worth mentioning: Firstly, before we are sure of the person Sae-young is in reality, it is for a time implied that she may simply have severe mental health problems and as such I found references to her cutting herself to elicit pity and caring from others (and moreover that very self harm being shown on more than one occasion to directly result in her getting the very love she desires, albeit temporarily, and thereby convincing her that continuing to do so is valid) rather uncomfortable viewing considering the real world problems of self harm suffered by many with serious mental health issues. That said, on a second watch of 'The Wicked' - being already aware of the full state of play - I found these segments far less of a difficult issue to reconcile but the fact that they stood out as perhaps questionable in the first place remains nonetheless.
Secondly, it could easily be said (and I assume will be by numerous critics) that the conclusion to 'The Wicked' owes far too much to one of the most famous of all Asian horror movies - the avoidance of spoilers prevents me from specifically mentioning its title but, trust me, if you are even vaguely familiar with the genre you will be almost guaranteed to recognise it - and that its inclusion is way too obvious and unoriginal a choice.
However, the fact that its use comes only as a final, extra point to the narrative's true focus to my mind allows 'The Wicked' to still be considered refreshingly original at the same time as succeeding in being one of the most deeply creepy and wickedly humorous Korean horror films for quite some time.
'The Wicked' is Park Ju-hee's film through and through, from start to gory finish. She absolutely owns every single scene in which she appears; the tiniest of eye movements, furtive sideways glances and inklings of smiles of wicked enjoyment from her consistently raising the level of believability time and time again and underlining the film's beautifully dark humour throughout, in the process. While the rest of the cast give unquestionably exemplary performances - especially Na Soo-yoon as Lee-sun - none can even come close to holding a candle to Park Ju-hee's portrayal of Sae-young. Park Ju-hee has shown her superb acting ability more than once already in her career but her performance in 'The Wicked' is so nuanced and memorable that the role could almost have been written specifically for her.
With the Korean horror genre having been somewhat in the doldrums of late - the majority of output (sadly) being rather predictable and/or generic - 'The Wicked' comes as an utter breath of fresh air. Though the film's conclusion could easily be said to owe far too much to one of the most famous of all Asian horrors, the fact that its use comes only as a final, extra point to the narrative's true focus allows 'The Wicked' to still be considered refreshingly original at the same time as succeeding in being one of the most deeply creepy and wickedly humorous Korean horrors for quite some time.
'The Wicked' (마녀) / 2013
Directed by: Yoo Young-sun
Cast: Park Ju-hee, Na Soo-yoon