"So, what are you going to do? You know you're a monster, right?
I should have killed you all those years ago..."


Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) is a seemingly normal teenage girl who has lived as the ‘daughter’ of a farmer and his wife since they discovered her bloodied and unconscious on their land ten years ago. Though at the time she was just six years old, she had escaped from a dark, shadowy institution and had collapsed fleeing from armed pursuers but under a medical examination doctors claimed a head wound would prevent her from ever remembering where she had previously been or why she had been there.
In the present day, Ja-yoon splits her time between school and helping her elderly and increasingly ailing ‘parents’ with farm duties and chores as they face growing financial pressures. As such, when her friend Myung-hee (Go Min-si) suggests entering a reality TV show singing audition Ja-yoon agrees, seeing it as a chance to win a significant amount of money to help her family further. Ja-yoon gives an exemplary performance at the televised audition, instantly becoming popular with judges and viewers alike.
However, her TV spot is also seen by those running the very institution she fled from a decade ago and on recognising her they set out to reclaim their human property at all cost, regardless of how brutal and violent that recovery may ultimately be...


A number of still images from ancient Egypt through Medieval times to the Nazi holocaust accompany The Witch’s opening credits, giving a somewhat veiled pointer to what has been and is going on at the institution from which Ja-yoon escaped even though we don't become aware of specifics and indeed what was done to her until around the halfway mark of the narrative. Immediately following, we see the young girl's fevered absconsion a decade ago pursued by a myriad of armed individuals, the utterly pulse-pounding scene wholly succeeding in gripping viewers from the very outset.

Those watching The Witch blind/blank (i.e. having no prior knowledge of the synopsis in general) could be forgiven for expecting a film with a title such as this to lean towards supernatural horror, but Ja-yoon’s story is in reality a merger of sci-fi, espionage/secret agent thriller and high-octane action genre elements, the title of The Witch being simply our heroine’s nickname. Fans of Korean cinema (as well as international films in general) will have seen The Witch’s genre and indeed narrative elements on many an occasion and as far as Korean films are concerned The Witch could almost be considered a splicing of The Silenced (in terms of generalised narrative) and The Villainess (in relation to highly choreographed action set pieces coming at breakneck pace). As such, The Witch could be said to be derivative to a degree but while both those mentioned films were, to my mind at least, fairly flawed in their own respects – the early promise of The Silenced being undermined by a disappointingly predictable ‘reveal’ and The Villainess suffering from a “quick, slow, quick, quick, slow pacing with the action sequences far outshining the lacklustre narrative progression – The Witch wisely chooses to present its story as a character driven drama first and foremost, and an engaging one at that, ramping up proceedings in the latter half when action is wholly called for and even eagerly awaited by viewers.

The first half of the film having none of the (overt) elements that will ultimately become its core and indeed raison d'être could be said to point to the drama section of the narrative being somewhat long but that really is (or isn't) down to viewers' individual perspective and I personally wouldn't cite its duration as a criticism, and in fact it allows the chemistry between Ja-yoon and her friend Myung-hee to show through to the nth degree, really warming us to both characters in the process. And while we're on the subject, Myung-hee’s humorously feisty nature and genuinely smile-inducing dialogue (played to absolute perfection by actress Go Min-si) is one of the film's major strengths and made my happy to let the action and narrative tension build as and when director Park Hoon-jung felt fit. Kim Da-mi as the titular ‘crazy witch’ also gives a superlative performance, her ability to change virtually at the drop of a hat from a seemingly innocent, naive and even frightened girl into a take no prisoners young woman on a vengeance trip is both marked and notable.

The Witch kicks into top gear in the second half of the running time as the truth behind what's taking place at the shadowy institution – and indeed Ja-yoon’s unwilling involvement in it – takes centre stage, the story becoming a high octane action thriller in the process. The action sequences are frankly breathtaking, perfectly choreographed and easily rivalling and equalling those of The Villainess, which were highly praised at the time of its release. However, in explaining what really is going on writer and director Park Hoon-jung (who as well as having several films under his belt also wrote the screenplay for Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil) resorts to protracted dialogue based exposition that (though the explanation is warranted and needed) to my mind goes on way too long. It could be said that the fairly lengthy drama that takes up the first hour meant the director only had so much time left to lay out the full goings on but, regardless, I refuse to believe that a more ingenious way of telling the 'Let me tell you what the state of play has been for the past decade’ tale couldn't be found. I admit that overlong exposition really is a bug bear of mine and as far as I'm concerned its overuse in the final stages of The Witch underlines why.
Ultimately the jaw dropping action set pieces and the success of the early drama allow The Witch to succeed in spite of this but the nature of the exposition certainly doesn't help.

As a final note: As you've probably already gleaned from the film's full title, The Witch is the first part of what director Park Hoon-jung intends to be a trilogy. As such, the narrative conclusion is somewhat open-ended, but rather than being a frustration it is ultimately strong and engaging enough to, as far as I'm concerned, ensure viewers will wait for the next instalment in anticipation regardless of the aforementioned niggles.



The first part of a proposed trilogy of films, The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion ultimately succeeds as not only a character driven drama but also a sci-fi infused high octane action thriller to the extent that viewers can be pretty much guaranteed to await the next instalment in anticipation, in spite of its rather overuse of dialogue-centred exposition.


Director: Park Hoon-jung
Starring: Kim Da-mi, Go Min-si, Jo Min-soo, Choi Woo-sik


All images © Warner Bros. (Korea)
Review © Paul Quinn