THE WITCH: PART 1- THE SUBVERSION is a charming Korean young adult thriller starring a superhero unlike any other. In lead Kim Da-mi’s second acting role, she slips effortlessly into the character of Ja-yoon, a young woman who escaped childhood imprisonment that gave her extraordinary powers. The first of three films, Ja-yoon’s captivating origin story delivers a heroine in the making.
Ja-yoon’s story begins when she escapes from a secret torture laboratory at age 8 and is adopted by an older couple who nurse her back to health. She lives an ordinary life until she is 19. With the family farm going bankrupt and both parents dealing with serious health issues, Ja-yoon is under pressure. She relies on her best friend/sister figure Myung-hee (Go Min-si), a bouncy, silly sidekick who complements her solemn friend. Myung-hee talks Ja-yoon into going on popular TV talent show to showcase her singing (and some other mysterious talents that remain hidden for a large part of the film). Ja-yoon excels at everything, but is also shy and tries to deflect attention to those around her. She dotes on her mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, she worries about her father’s health, she encourages Myung-hee’s impulses and allows her to push her boundaries.
Ja-yoon does not fit either the typical superhero or super villain look. Her bulging eyes and blank facial expressions telegraph that she is frail, weak, and mild, only to release huge storms of violence à la The Raid when underestimated by her enemies. She is spindly, pale and rarely wears makeup. Her look is androgynous, and her family and friends don’t let her forget that she should be trying harder to look feminine to attract men. Comfortable with her own style, Ja-yoon has no interest in dating or impressing anyone.
Unlike the glamorous, tailor-made costuming of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman or Jennifer Lawrence’s scrappy-chic aesthetic in The Hunger Games, Ja-yoon does not dress in a traditionally feminine manner. She doesn’t have a cool costume, opting for baggy sweatpants or her school uniform. And besides the weapons she pilfers in desperation, she doesn’t own any guns, knives, or high-tech weapons. She doesn’t want to be a hero at all— Ja-yoon tries in vain to maintain her calm, normal life.
For as well as we think we know our protagonist for most of the movie, the third act proves us wrong. Ja-yoon has telekinetic abilities, which she performs on television for the world to see, even though fame puts her in danger. While she only makes a microphone levitate on the show, she later uses her telekinesis fight her enemies from the torture laboratory. Her other powers include being incredibly fast, and wicked dangerous with a knife, her bare hands, or any kind of weapon. She breaks her wrist at one point and sets it herself, her bones cracking, without so much as batting an eye. Watching her shift from innocent and helpless to badass murderer is just delightful.
In a Batman vs. Superman type of showdown, Ja-yoon fights other kids who also escaped the torture lab who are equally powerful. It isn’t made clear why exactly they want to kill her—main villain Nobleman drags out the fairly obvious “do you know who I am yet?” act for a painfully long time without ever giving a reason why he and the others want Ja-yoon dead. THE WITCH: PART 1- THE SUBVERSION has a few flaws like this that are unavoidable. Prepare yourself for a lot of “villain explaining their convoluted evil plan” type scenes, albeit paired with interesting backstory footage. This doesn’t excuse the dragging-on feeling of a villain explaining their whole plan over several long minutes; it skews silly when the subject matter is dark and meant to be taken seriously. Despite that, the movie is still enjoyable, especially if you’re a fan of films like Train to Busan or The Raid, as the fight choreography is top notch.
Ja-yoon is a YA superhero to watch for in the future. The film is the first in a trilogy, ending on a cliffhanger that teases the prospect of Ja-yoon forging her way in the world for the first time. After finally succumbing to the violent power high she’d been craving, the end of the movie leaves us with a viciously brutal, angrier Ja-yoon who is confident in her ability to bring down anyone who steps in her path.
This origin story leaves us with a Ja-yoon we don’t yet know, who will be revealed further in the penultimate sequel. She isn’t your typical blockbuster hero, and that makes her irresistible to those of us who love a unique, deadly, unstoppable woman.