The story goes that when a foundling child suddenly appeared on their farm, decent, warm-hearted Jonathan and Martha Kent adopted him as their own under the name Clark Kent and raised him with their homespun rural values before sending him out into the world. This legend casts its shadow over The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion (Manyeo), except that the eight-year-old girl who turns up, injured and amnesiac, at the Koos’ farm has not come from a dying planet, but rather from a shadowy research facility whose walls she left plastered in the deep red of soldiers’ gore.
So while, ten years later, Koo Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) may be a mild-mannered high-school senior, loving to her cow-rearing father (Choi Jung-woo) and demented mother (Oh Mi-hee), we know that she carries within her a latent power, and we are not quite sure if she is a superheroine, or a ‘monster’ – which is how her long-term pursuer Mr Choi (Park Hee-soon) insists on referring to her in the presence of his handler Dr Baek (Jo Min-su).In the decade that she has spent with the Koos, Ja-yoon has been living a quiet life below the radar, while concealing a debilitating, possibly deadly illness from everyone – but once, on the advice of her best friend Myung-hee (Go Min-si), she has entered a national talent competition, her television appearances draw the attention of Baek, Choi and a group of menacing Korean-American teenagers, and the stage is set for her past to catch up with her. In other words, this is one of those ‘sleeper agent’ narratives, like The Long Kiss Goodnight or The Bourne Identity, in which a protagonist’s dormant powers are reawoken.
The impressionistic prologue, however, with its tableau of a messy massacre’s aftermath, promises that once this young woman gets her childhood mojo back, there will be blood – and let’s not forget that writer/director Park Hoon-jung also co-wrote the screenplay to Kim Jee-woon’s serial killer thriller I Saw The Devil, which included scenes of shockingly extreme depravity. So while this film is long, and much of it plays out like an adolescent melodrama, the film’s opening ensures that even the most innocuous of scenes are taut with the tension engendered by our expectation of mayhem to come. Ja-yoon may seem sweet, good-natured and vulnerable, but we also know that she is a coiled spring, and are just waiting for all that potential energy to be released – even if we are not quite sure what power she has, or to what end she will ultimately use it.
The Superman story was always, among other things, a myth of nature versus nurture, as Clark Kent, for all the alien strength in his genes, is raised by his adoptive parents with a human ethos and outlook. Park’s film is playing a similar game, while knowing full well that the rules are ripe for subversion. This requires lead actress Kim to put in a versatile performance (playing someone who is, precisely, putting in a versatile performance) – and in the end, after a very slow build-up, the film delivers an explosion of crazy, bloody violence, before setting up the sequel implied by the (English) title.
The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion was seen and reviewed at FrightFest Glasgow 2019.