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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Fantasia Festival review – The Witch Part 1: The Subversion

My notes on Manyeo (The Witch Part 1: The Subversion) (2018), which screened at the Fantasia Festival.

 

The psychic powers/espionage/conspiracy sub-genre epitomised by The Fury, Scanners and Firestarter – which had outliers like The Power (1968) – had a mushroom growth in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, which coincided with the sudden popularity of Marvel’s X-Men, a comic which was among the least successful of the company’s 1960s-launched franchises and suffered such low sales that it lurched to cancellation.  At the time, superhero comics were so locked off in their own four-colour universe that there seemed not to be much crossover – though a few comics storylines paralleled the use Stephen King and David Cronenberg were making of the same themes.  Now, with superheroics far more mainstream in pop culture, it seems that the two strains are fused completely … and this South Korean science fiction film, which announces in its title that it wants to be a series, has a lot in common with various Marvel film and TV projects (The Gifted, Legion, Runaways) even as it plays in the same sandpit with transhuman movie dramas like Unbreakable, Lucy, Headshot and Morgan.  It has a relatively slow start, introducing a complex backstory with squabbling bad guy factions focused on a heroine with an intricate family set-up, but eventually delivers terrific superpowered rumbles – with bodies breaking walls and enhanced humans shrugging off bullet wounds (note the guy blocking bullets with his forearm), tossing regular evil suits aside so they can settle down to the business of battering each other.

 

In a prologue, a government experiment to augment certain children has resulted in a bloody massacre and the clean-up crew have to do overtime – two survivors of the program, a boy and a girl, make a break for it, but only the girl gets away.  Years later, Koo Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) is a seemingly normal farmgirl, helping her father (Choi Jung-woo) as he struggles with financial setbacks and his wife’s memory lapses, and palling around with pushy, funny sidekick Myung-hee (Go Min-si), who seemingly nags her into taking part in a TV talent contest where her relatively mediocre singing (she does an up-tempo wailing ‘Danny Boy’) is eclipsed by her telekinetic ‘magic tricks’.  This brings her to the attention of various sinister folks connected with the superpowers program.  The boy she left behind is now a pin-up-look junior mastermind (Choo Woo-silk) and has his own posse of Matrix-dressed Evil Mutants, and works alternately for and against the matriarchal mad scientist in charge of the program (Jo Min-soo) and the security goon (Park Hee-soon) who got scarred during the heroine’s escape and still holds a grudge.  While Myung-hee, who brings a welcome teenflick levity, is around, the film is almost a skit on country-girl-in-the-big-city dramas, with the naïve teens rushing through Seoul to get to the TV studios and menacing yet flirty guys appearing at every turn … but eventually Ja-hoon, who has recently learned she needs a bone marrow transplant from her unknown birth mother, starts remembering her past and showing other sides to her sweet personality.  Maybe her code-name, the Witch, isn’t unfair, since the plot unfolds in a more complicated manner than expected, with a couple of mid-film revelations that reveal other plots have been in motion all along.

 

Writer-director Park Hoon-jung scripted I Saw the Devil and directed VIP – his specialty is dark melodrama, peeling the skin of film archetypes like the gangster and the serial killer.  Here, he essentially takes on the superheroine – who is at once innocent schoolgirl and super-swift, psychic-powered killing machine. Kim Da-mi, who shows a lot of range as the bizarre protagonist, is splendid in all her moods, and a whirlwind in action.  The look, as with so many K-movies, is mostly gloomy, night-time and claustrophobic – after establishing both the farm and the city as locales of threat, the second half of the film is mostly confined to an underground bunker where all the factions can brutally lay into each other.  It ends, of course, with a fresh revelation and a sequel hook.

 

Here’s a trailer.

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