There’s an elegance and simplicity to writer/director Hoon-jung Park’s The Witch: Subversion that all begins with the opening. Via photo montage with intense tonal scoring, The Witch sets up a mysterious cabal performing medical experiments on children: iron lungs, tubes hooked to a variety of places, bandages of such quantity to imply great injury. From here, the audience is shown the aftermath of an incident leaving several injured and one on the run as staff hunt. We do not know what happened or who is missing, we only know that who ran off, doesn’t have long to live. The mystery in place, Park then shifts away from the illusive event to jump in time as a family struggles under financial strain and medical uncertainty. While these seem like aspects divorced from each other narratively and tonally, Park masterfully weaves each into and out of each other until the audience is on the edge of their seat for a ride filled with countless surprises.
One fateful morning in a rural area outside Seoul, a young girl is found unconscious and bleeding by a farmer and his wife. They don’t know from where she came, only that she endured a great deal to reach their property. Adopting her as their own, the girl who would be known as Ja-yoon (newcomer Kim Da-Mi) moves beyond her past, becoming just like any other high school student her age. However, things begin to change for Ja-yoon after she tries out for a televised competition in hopes of winning the prize money to help her struggling adoptive parents, abruptly changing her quiet life into one of violence. There is one gift, albeit hidden within: the answer to her lost past.
If I’ve said it once about a film’s marketing, I’ve likely said it a million times: the trailer marketing Subversion sets up the absolutely wrong impression. As usual, the link is available at the end of the review for you to see for yourself, but take heed that it will lead you astray when it comes to what to expect. The trailer promises action and a bit of science fiction, both of which are fantastically executed, but that’s not the whole picture and there’s certainly none of the supernatural/horror promised. A great deal of it is shrouded in mystery, making the larger portion of the film more of a family drama which exists within a larger story involving a mysterious organization and people with abilities. But then, explaining Subversion without giving away the goods in a trailer is exceeding difficult. The best way to describe the film (if such comparisons are required) is to consider an amalgamation of two other Well Go USA films: Burning and The Villainess. Both are thrillers, but Burning requires the audience to dig deeply into the subtext to answer questions and Villainess puts a premium on inventive action sequences. The recent John Wick: Chapter 3 even drew inspiration from a key sequence involving a motorcycle chase from Villainess. While the stunt work isn’t on that level and the narrative doesn’t explore the social class divide, Park’s Subversion succeeds through its soft touch blending the action, drama, and/or fantasy elements which comprise the two reference works.
So let’s breakdown Subversion into a few key pieces to better understand what’s all at play. The narrative element featured within the trailer is that of action/fantasy. These elements don’t make up a significant portion of the film, yet they are a cornerstone. At the onset, Park establishes that he’s going to be bending reality via the photomontage and the minimal coverage of the incident. Here, an initially unnamed scientist, played by Jo Min-soo, hints that whatever a group of soldiers are fighting can only be killed via a shot to the head and whomever escaped will be dead soon. This sets up the mystery/thriller elements that will propel much of the story forward, while also establishing that the rules of this story are vastly different from reality. When Park shows the audience that the missing subject is a young girl, we know we’re in for something different. Children in film, by and large, represent unknown potential as well as innocence. Park knows that the audience will consider these factors, making the various twists and turns of Subversion all the more delicious. To explain more would ruin some of the fun; however, suffice it to say that Park knows what his audiences expects and gives it to them in an unexpected manner.
Another key element is the use of fantasy. Everything that happens is grounded in a way that is tangential to reality. History is full of various experiments conducted on patients willing, unwilling, or unsuspecting, so this element being at the forefront of the story positions the audience to accept some weirdness. This, of course, comes in the form of various metahuman abilities like speed, strength, endurance, and other surprises. Where other filmmakers might make the presence of these abilities a focus, Park uses them sparingly at first, allowing the audience to question and consider what the characters do instead of distracting them with spectacle. This places focus on the characters — their actions, their motivations, their needs — rather than on their powers, which are mighty on their own. Park trusts the audience to put pieces together even without answers, though those do come, but only as a means of kicking off a rather stellar climax. The end result is a slow cooker experience in which the audience is piece-mealed information until it reaches a paradoxical ending that’s both surprising and absolutely seeded throughout the film.
The last key element to be explored without dipping into spoilers is the cast. Fans of both Train to Busan and four-time Oscar winner Parasite will recognize Choi Woo-Shik as an unnamed male character who leads in the hunt for Ja-yoon. He channels the youthful energy of Busan’s Yong-guk and the guile of Ki Woo into something charmingly menacing. With a smile, Woo-Shik pulls you in, and with a line delivery, chills you to the bone or causes an unexpected giggle. Though not the center of the film, his presence makes a strong impression on the overall experience. Revealed to be a doctor leading the project Ja-yoon escaped, Min-Soo balances the cool menace required for a leader-type with a subtle maternal nature. From the performance, the audience believes the character’s surprise and admiration upon finding out that Ja-yoon is alive. There’s a layered sense that the doctor does possess a modicum of fondness of the children under her care. This does not placate the audience into believing the doctor is benevolent, merely human in forming an attachment. It’s also a lovely detail that highlights how Park understands the inherent biases the audience will bring to his story. Again, to expound further would ruin the fun, so let’s now look at the center of the story: Da-Mi’s performance as Ja-yoon. With only a television credit prior to this, Da-Mi is essentially new to acting, yet she offers something so nuanced and complex that she appears as a seasoned pro. The character is stuck between a traumatic past, a painful present, and a violent force ramming the two together. This requires a delicate performance to capture Ja-yoon’s innocence in the face of new threats, yet a resilience to handle it. Park’s script sets the stage for a clever narrative, but without Da-Mi’s ability to invoke awe and surprise from the audience, the core of the film is lost.
The one downside that requires mentioning is that the home release of Subversion is basically barren when it comes to special features. It offers no behind the scenes peeks, no featurettes, nothing of any substance exploring the film, the cast, or the crew. Considering the film is listed on IMDB as “Part 1,” there’s certainly a sense that Park has more story to tell, so why not explore some of that with a featurette. Instead, all that is included is three trailers (two International and one U.S.) and previews for other Well Go USA releases. While that is an enormous disappointment, given the strength of the film, it’s certainly no reason not to pick it up for yourself. The Witch: Subversion may possess elements you’ve seen before and it may not be the horror/action story the trailer indicates, but it’s more than worth the two-hour+ investment you’ll make.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital March 10th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.