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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Korean Cinema

‘The Witch’ (2018, 2022): Genetically Modified Children

Directed by: Park Hoon-jung || Produced by: Park hoon-jung, Yeon Young-sik

Screenplay by: Park Hoon-jung || Starring: Kim Da-mi, Jo Min-su, Choi Woo-shik, Go Min-si, Jung Da-eun, Choi Jung-woo, Park Hee-soon, Shin Si-ah, Park Eun-bin, Seo Eun-soo, Sung-Yoo-bin, Jin Goo

Music by: Mowg || Cinematography: Kim Young-ho, Lee Teo || Edited by: Kim Chang-ju || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean

Running Time: 125 + 137 = 262 minutes

The modern Korean film industry produces mediocre to bad movies (My Sassy Girl [2001], anyone?) like any national moviemaking culture, sure, and I doubt the contemporary cinematic “renaissancewithin the peninsular East Asian nation will last forever, but those are asterisks beside an otherwise powerful filmmaking rule: Korean filmmaking has been the best on the planet for the last twenty years at least, its hard-edged action-thrillers most of all.  Hardboiled melodramas about serial killers (e.g. Memories of Murder [2003], The Chaser [2008], The Chase [2017], The Gangster, The Cop, & the Devil [2019]), organized crime syndicates (e.g. Oldboy [2003], The Man from Nowhere [2010], My Name [2021]), or dark family secrets (e.g. Mother [2009], Forgotten [2017], Parasite [2019]) are the most intelligent cinematic entertainment you can find if they’re produced south of the 38th parallel north.

A recent project that attracted my attention due to its weird premise (more on that in a moment) and its two-part structure is Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch, the latter attribute of which mimics the irritating Hollywood (see the Harry Potter [2001-2011] franchise) and now South Indian (e.g. Baahubali [2015, 2017], K. G. F. [2018, 2022], Ponniyin Selvan [2022, 2023]) trend of splitting theatrical screenplays over multiple unnecessary installments (not every movie is The Lord of the Rings [2001-2003]!). Another multi-genre mashup in the vein of Save the Green Planet! (2003), The Host (2006), and The Call (2020), this two-parter combines everything from science-fiction to horror to action in a sort of live-action riff on Akira (1988), Resident Evil (1996-), and The X-Men (1992-1997) in equal measure. Park, who first cut his teeth as the screenwriter for Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010), sketches an opaque yet engrossing diegesis where evil, mysterious eugenics laboratories kidnap pregnant women to experiment on their unborn children, augmenting the latter into super-soldiers for… let’s say reasons unknown.

In Part 1: Subversion, lead Kim Da-mi is far from the only enhanced superhuman, as multiple private security teams and genetically engineered soldiers battle in the film’s bloody centerpiece.

To describe the premise of The Witch: Part I (2018; subtitled as Subversion) and Part II (2022; subtitled as The Other One) as batshit insane would be putting it mildly; the absurdity yet committed execution of this sci-fi/horror/action biopunk extravaganza is on par with Kim Jee-woon’s Wolf Brigade (2018), David Ayer’s Bright (2017), Sujeeth Reddy’s Saaho (2019), or James Wan’s Malignant (2021), where none of those screenplays describe outright fantasy worlds in the traditional sense — their characters act within an ostensible realistic diegesis similar to our own — but all their narratives still go off the rails by the third act. The 2018 Witch installment as a standalone experience is superior to all the aforementioned, while the 2022 follow-up is not, but each part flaunts that unmistakable Korean entertainment value within the industry’s signature appetite for uncensored bloodshed. Unlike so many Hollywood blockbusters, superhero-oriented or otherwise, never during even the lowest points of Subversion nor The Other One does Park’s direction feel compromised to appeal to as general an audience as possible. The Witch is crazy to a fault, but it’s at least auteur-driven craziness.

The better installment of the two, Subversion, paces its action, character arcs, and most importantly of all, narrative revelations well across a tight 125-minute runtime. After an enticing prologue that establishes the gory genre-blending thrills to come, writer-director Park introduces Part I’s titular protagonist (Kim Da-mi) as a child escapee and former test subject of our genetic engineer antagonists, who suffers amnesia as a result of her traumatic origins after being taken in by a sympathetic farm couple without children of their own. Acts One and Two introduce competing villainous factions (Choi Woo-shik is a highlight) related to Kim Da-Mi’s former captors, forcing the latter to make difficult choices as she rediscovers elements of her upbringing along with the audience. Subversion then peaks in its third act narrative twist and stellar action centerpiece, which melds plentiful yet believable digital FX with potent gunplay and gruesome blood squibs. 

Where Part I builds to its violent set-pieces and explosive third act-finale in a believable manner, Part II: The Other One, makes all the mistakes common to most Hollywood, Bollywood, South Indian, or mainland Chinese blockbusters when those types of pictures introduce superhuman abilities in live-action photography. The 2022 sequel blows past any semblance of plausibility in terms of the direction of its action scenes, as various computer-generated objects are thrown about with little regard for real world physics and few characters’ physical actions feel like they have any weight. The Other One also doesn’t escalate to its melodramatic carnage the way Subversion did, either, jumping straight to excessive, over-the-top action choreography well before the halfway mark, and its inconsistent editing rhythm doesn’t help.

Making matters worse is how weak Part II’s screenplay is compared to Part I, even more so than its direction. The Other One, as its name implies, follows a different “witch” — the fraternal twin (Shin Si-ah) of Kim Da-Mi from Subversion — and she’s not an improvement; Shin has little dialogue and is allowed almost no emotional range throughout Part II in sharp contrast to Kim’s delicious, cunning, dare I say “subversive” main character. On top of that, Part II boasts a gigantic supporting cast who’s diegetic allegiances are unclear and serve little purpose in the movie other than to justify superfluous fight sequences or inappropriate comic relief.

After Part I’s conclusion leaves a Jeju Island laboratory complex in ruins, mop-up crews euthanize as many wounded superhumans as possible (top), but miss Shin Si-ah’s protagonist (bottom) in Part II.

I wanted to spotlight Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch duology given my respect for his work on I Saw the Devil as well as Night in Paradise (2020; I saw the latter before Subversion), and ultimately believe The Witch represents the best and worst of his filmography thus far. The 2018 debut installment of this latest “cinematic universe” is Korean genre-blending at its height, whereas its 2022 follow-up is a chaotic mess comparable to Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (2017). Again, nothing in this filmic experience screams major studio committee-groupthink given The Witch’s concept as a whole, but ironically Park executes many of the mistakes characteristic of blockbuster cinema on his own accord before the ride is over.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Witch’s two installments are akin to when auteur filmmakers remake their previous films (e.g. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games [1997, 2007], Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge [2002, 2004), often to diminishing results. I enjoyed the hell out of Part I’s subversive take on human experimentation and superhuman abilities on film, but Part II undoes much of that magic given its embracement of high-concept cinematographic stereotypes. If Subversion is a darker version of Hanna (2011), then The Other One is more of a Lucy (2014).


? Did they use the same farmhouse set for both movies? I swear those locations looked exactly the same…

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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