The Witch: Subversion (South Korea 2018)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 6/13/20
Cast: Kim Da-Mi, Go Min-Si

A young girl with psychic powers escapes from a research facility and manages to elude her pursuers long enough to be rescued by an elderly couple on a remote farm. Suffering from severe wounds and amnesia, she's adopted by the couple and given the name Ko Ja-Yoon (Kim Da-Mi). Ten years later, her mother is suffering from dementia and her best friend Myung-Hee (Go Min-Si) convinces her to audition for a TV talent show in an attempt to win prize money that can cover her family's medical bills. Not surprisingly, her TV appearance captures the attention of some people from Ja-Yoon's past who are VERY interested in getting their hands on her. Will she recover her memories and live long enough to figure out what's going on?

While the American release promotes it as an action film, it's really more of a supernatural thriller. As such, it's a slow burn and the first seventy minutes are spent entirely on exposition and character development. The first action scene is a doozy, though, and comes out of nowhere with shocking intensity. The violence escalates as the film nears its climax, and while the action scenes are fun to watch, the visual effects are weak and unconvincing. This is particularly disappointing because the rest of the production is top-notch. The acting is superb across the board and newcomer Kim Da-Mi is wonderful. However, it's Go Min-Si who ends up stealing the show with her pitch-perfect portrayal of a high-strung and overly enthusiastic high school girl. She's simply delightful and totally relatable. The bad guys are a mixed bag and tend to be a bit kooky and melodramatic. Colored contacts are used to poor effect and the American hit squad is characterized by their non-stop gum chewing. I find it both puzzling and amusing that other countries see America as a nation obsessed with chewing gum. Seeing Ja-Yoon's mother's condition worsen over the course of the movie is heartbreaking, and handled with such intimacy and gentleness that it vividly reminded me of my own mother's battle with Alzheimer's. That was especially hard to watch.

The confusing and convoluted epilogue feels clumsily tacked on as an afterthought, and teases that this is the first film in a trilogy. It will be interesting to see if it goes anywhere, although with all of Ja-Yoon's secrets out in the open, the series will need to rely more on action than suspense. While I ultimately ended up enjoying the film, the sluggish pacing and domestic drama made me impatient and I was constantly tempted to hit the fast-forward button. If you go into it expecting an action film, you're bound to be sorely disappointed.