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While the coronavirus pandemic has smashed the brakes on Marvel and Warner Bros.’s summer blockbuster slate this year, the next great superhero movie is already here, streaming on Netflix: The Witch Part 1: The Subversion.
Look past that melodramatic, even confusing name; this is not a sequel to the 2016 horror movie The Witch. Possibly there’s some nuance lost in translating it over to English from its native Korean (the movie debuted in Korea in 2018). From its brutal and electrifying fight scenes to its icy and gritty feel and its core mystery, The Witch Part 1 is a much more exciting, unforgettable watch than its generic title may suggest.
On the surface, director Park Hoon-jung is telling a Superman-adjacent story: A very special kid, thanks to deadly circumstances, becomes an orphan and grows up trying to fit into a world that can’t even begin to understand them. It takes an extraordinary circumstance, usually a big evil thing, to get a character like this to find themselves and their true potential. That happens in this movie, too.
But the beauty of The Witch is the dark and sublimely satisfying place Park takes us to, once we realize our hero’s true motivation: survival.
At its core, The Witch is about fitting in
The Witch, at its core, is a coming-of-age story about a young girl named Ja-yoon. We first meet her as a child, running away from trouble. What appears to be a black-ops arm of the government is hunting her down for reasons unknown and murders everyone in their way. Bloodied and bruised, Ja-yoon flees to a nearby farm where, in a twist of good fortune, a farmer and his elderly wife take her in and evade the dark forces that want her dead.
Flash forward 10 years later, and Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) and her family are living unbothered by any evil government agents. The family’s problems are instead depressingly mortal. Ja-yoon’s adoptive father’s farm isn’t doing so well, and her mother is flashing signs of dementia. They’re short on cash. Ja-yoon feels stuck, not being old enough or skilled enough to help her family in the way they need most. At the same time, she is also having some very mysterious splitting headaches.
Her best friend Myung-hee (Ko Min-shi) has an antidote — for her family’s financial problems, not the headaches — which is that Ja-yoon enter a national, televised talent competition not unlike American Idol or The Voice. While Ja-yoon isn’t old enough for a full-time job, she has the voice and appeal to become a pop star, get famous and hopefully provide her family with the money it needs.
The script gets in a few jabs at the not-so-secret workings of Korean pop stardom and the facile business of churning out music acts. But Park is more focused on showing us Ja-yoon’s greenness in endeavors like this one. She approaches everything with wide-eyed optimism, and doesn’t yet have the toughness or savvy to know what to do should she win the competition. She doesn’t even realize that the black-ops team that’s hunting her down could be watching the TV show, too.
On their girls’ trip to Seoul for a show taping, Ja-yoon and Myung-hee meet Gong-ja (Choi Woo-Shik), a boy with pop star looks who says he knows Ja-yoon. He seems a little too mysterious, a little too familiar, a little too stylish to not be connected to the well-funded team that’s hunting her down.
But Ja-yoon has her eyes on the competition. If she wins, she can help her ailing mom, her struggling dad, and maybe solve her own health problems. That is, until the bottom falls out.
Warning: Only keep reading if you’re not afraid of some very big spoilers.
The movie’s strength is in its absolutely fantastic twist
Ja-yoon’s shot at stardom quickly seems to be a fatal error. The boy she meets, Gong-ja, is actually in cahoots with one Professor Baek (Cho Min-soon), the icy head of the government program that’s still hunting Ja-yoon down. Her appearance on the show sets off a series of disasters which end up with Ja-yoon trading her freedom for her parents’ safety. At the same time, we get a flash of Ja-yoon’s powers which seem to be super strength, agility, and marksmanship — she takes down a team of goons in her home before Gong-ja, who also has powers, and his gang shows up.
They take Ja-yoon to Baek’s secret facility, where Baek explains that they’ve been searching for her for a very long time. Ja-yoon, like Gong-ja, was part of a government program that tinkered with kids’ brains, altering them so those kids would eventually become violent superhumans. It also turns out that the headaches Ja-yoon experiences are actually a symptom of a bigger, deadly side effect of those experiments, Baek tells her, before giving her a cure that staves off death for one month. And now, with the cure as blackmail, she’s under their control.
Ja-yoon was the most lethal superhuman created by the program, and she made it so stupidly easy for them to find her, Baek says. But then we all slowly realize that this was Ja-yoon’s plan all along.
Ja-yoon wanted to be found.
It turns out she knew about the cause of her headaches and her terminal symptoms long ago, and that, with her lack of resources, she’d never be able to find Baek and her clandestine organization on her own. Playing a young, innocent girl who had no idea about her powers was going to chum the waters and bring Baek, and her cure, out of hiding. Everything we think we know about Ja-yoon gets turned on its head. She played us like she played Baek.
Park then unfurls the true nature of his movie: It’s not so much about a superhero finding herself, but an anti-hero bent on revenge.
The twist hinges on Kim’s devastating performance. She plays Ja-yoon with the exact amount of earnestness and sweetness needed for us to believe that she’s just a young girl in a world that threatens to swallow her up. She never leans too far into these traits that the character becomes saccharine or even overwhelming; in an instant, when Kim sharpens her face and coils her brows, that girl we think we know is gone, replaced with a woman finally able to wield her immense power.
Park doesn’t allow Ja-yoon to be a saint, clearly painting her as a sociopath instead. She finds glee in the bloody pain she inflicts and the insults she throws. Ja-yoon tells one of Gong-ja’s goons to witness her greatness as Ja-yoon holds her face in her hands, like a lion toying with its dinner. Yet watching Ja-yoon break bones, crack limbs, and shoot up Baek’s henchmen is beautiful, cathartic even. Because they fell under the spell of underestimating the witch — and maybe I did, too.