South Korea. 2018.
Director/Screenplay – Park Hoon-jung, Photography – Teo Lee & Young-ho Kim, Music – Mowg, Visual Effects Supervisor – Yun Geuk Kang. Production Company – Peppermint & Company.
Kim Da-me (Koo Ja-yoon), Jo Min-su (Dr Baek), Go Min-se (Doh Myung-hee), Choi Woo-sik (Nobleman), Me-soon Park (Mr Choi), Kim Na-ha (Young Ja-yoon), Kim Byeong-ok (Officer Doh), Daeun (Girl with Long Hair), Baek Seung-cheul (Farming Store Supply Owner)
Nine year-old Ja-yoon makes an escape from a research facility where she was held. Security is sent to bring her back but she makes it to the farm of the aging Koo and his wife and they shelter and later adopt her. Ten years later. Ja-yoon is in school. Her best friend Doh Myung-hee persuades her to appear on the national televised talent competition Birth of a Star. Ja-yoon does so in the hopes of winning enough money to save her adopted parents’ ailing farm. On air, she demonstrates her ‘magic’ – the ability to levitate objects – and wins the competition. However, this also brings the attention of the people she fled from who send security to bring her back.
South Korean director Park Hoon-jung first appeared as a screenwriter with the crime film The Unjust (2010) and the international hit of the serial killer film I Saw the Devil (2010). He made his directorial debut not long after with the historical film The Showdown (2011) and followed this with the gangster film New World (2013), the historical film The Tiger: A Hunter’s Tale (2015), the action film V.I.P. (2017) and the gangster film Night in Paradise (2020).
You have to admire the ambition of a film that announces from the outset that it is one of a series – moreover, a work that is not based on a pre-existing property, which leaves it with even more of an uphill battle to win audiences from scratch. At first glance, the title made me think that we were in for some kind of spinoff of Robert Eggers’ The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015).
However, The Witch part of the title proves to be misleading. What we in fact have is not a film about witches, which usually rest in occult or fantastic explanations, but actually a psychic powers tale – something that rests in science-fictional explanations. As we get into the film, what becomes apparent is that Park Hoon-jung has set out to follow the path of psychic powers films like Children of the Damned (1964), The Fury (1978), Scanners (1981), Firestarter (1984), Akira (1988), Sole Survivor (2000), Push (2009), The Mind’ Eye (2015), The Darkest Minds (2018), Freaks (2018) and Seobok (2021) depicting people, often children or teenagers, being pursued by sinister government agents (the pursuers here are private security working for the people behind the experiments rather than government agents but the difference is negligible). (For a more detailed listing see Films About Psychic Powers).
The Witch: Part 1 – Subversion plays out as a standard psychic powers film for the most part. Most of this is fairly by the book – it gets hard to be enthused about a film when a major plot element involves the heroine appearing on a reality tv talent show. Throughout much of the film, Park Hoon-jung downplays the psychic powers element – for instance, we don’t even get to see the powers that Kim Da-me displays during her appearance on tv until near the end, which seems odd given how central this demonstration is to the plot that follows. The only display that we get to see is a sequence where the scientist’s family are killed during which Choi Woo-sik levitates a gun back around on the scientist.
Where The Witch: Part 1 – Subversion comes into its own is with a jaw-dropping mid-film reversal of the expectation that one has as a result of the aforementioned psychic powers films. [PLOT SPOILERS]. Here we learn that the innocent gifted child that we expected to be following all along has pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes and has been duping the pursuing scientists in an elaborate scheme to get them to do what she wanted. It is quite a jolting reversal (which is presumably the ‘subversion’ mentioned in the title). Not to mention, it is unnerving watching the glee with which the innocent Kim Da-me suddenly starts slaughtering people.
You also have to applaud Park Hoon-jung who leaves the film going out on a slambang ending with Kim Da-me taking on the scientists and security in a series of revved up action sequences with people punching through walls, throwing each other around, conducting leaps up to the height of the ceiling, dancing around walls and levitating guns against their attackers.
Park Hoon-jung returned with a sequel The Witch Part 2: The Other One (2022), featuring another girl escaped from the same laboratory.