The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion (마녀, Park Hoon-jung, 2018)

There’s probably something quite profound to be said about the folkloric tradition of the foundling child and untold destiny, that exiled nobility can salvage the best qualities of the place they escaped in a rural paradise before returning to make their restoration. Superheroes do indeed seem to find frequent refuge in the wholesome plains of farm country where the salt of the Earth raises them into upstanding people with the right kind of values to couple with their “unnatural” powers to enable them to “save the world” in ways both literal and metaphorical. Perhaps there is darkness in that idea too, that we need such people to save us rather learning to save ourselves or that we secretly long to believe in our latent specialness and hidden destiny, and of course those rightful values may also be inherently conservative in that they aim to preserve a particular vision of “goodness”. In any case, the heroine of Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch: Part. 1. The Subversion (마녀, Manyeo) is not so much out to save the world as engaged in a war to save herself and that particular vision of goodness she’s been gifted by good people (or, then again, perhaps not).

Park begins with blood as a little girl manages to escape a massacre at some kind of shady facility before passing out in front of an idyllic farmstead where she is eventually taken in and nursed back to health by a kindly older couple, the Koos. 10 years pass. The little girl is now the teenage Koo Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) and an archetypal farm girl albeit an extraordinarily pretty one with straight A grades and fierce love for her now struggling adoptive parents. With the farming industry in crisis and Mrs. Koo suffering with Alzheimer’s, Ja-yoon finds herself bullied into taking part in a televised singing competition by her boisterous best friend Myung-hee (Go Min-si), which is not the best idea if you’re trying to hide from shady government forces. Sure enough, the past begins to resurface leaving Ja-yoon with a series of difficult choices.

Like many other recent Korean action dramas with female leads, The Witch steps back into the familiar territory of “good” mothers and “bad” while uncomfortably asking if childhood corruption can be cured by love alone. Living as Ja-yoon, the unnamed little girl has been reset. Given a “normal” childhood, she seems to have become a “normal”, perhaps ideal, young woman who does well at school, is confident and self possessed, and dearly loves her family and friends. When we finally meet the woman responsible for her corruption, Professor Baek (Jo Min-su) who presents herself again as a maternal figure and Ja-yoon’s “creator”, we learn that Ja-yoon is a creature born of icy violence, raised without compassion or love for no greater purpose than destruction.

Mr. Koo (Choi Jung-woo), perhaps understanding Ja-yoon a little better than she understands herself, often tells her not to go out “like that” which seems like slightly archaic paternal sexism but is also an attempt to soften those “male” instincts towards violence which are so much a part of her early life and of her essential nature. Frightened by her “unnatural” cruelty, Mr. Koo wasn’t sure if they should keep Ja-yoon with them but his wife (Oh Mi-hee) disagreed, believing they could heal her by raising her in love. The choice Ja-yoon faces is whether to embrace her persona as Koo Ja-yoon as raised by her adoptive parents, or the psychopathic killer which lies underneath.

Park leaves the dilemma very much in the air with “Ja-yoon” a vacillating cypher whose internal divisions seem to become ever more stark as she begins to wall off her various personas. “The Witch”, as the title implies, may itself have its misogynistic overtones in pointing directly at Ja-yoon’s transgressive femininity, both innocent farm girl and unstoppable killing machine, but as the subtitle hints Ja-yoon is also attempting to subvert herself in service of a greater mission which (for the moment) remains unclear. Park opens the door to a sequel in which subversion might not be the aim, sending Ja-yoon further along the path of dark self exploration which promises still more violence and mayhem before her bloody work is done.


The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion is released on Digital HD in the UK on April 22nd courtesy of Signature Entertainment.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

The Princess and the Matchmaker (궁합, Hong Chang-pyo, 2018)

Princess and the Matchmaker posterLove – is it an act of fate or of free will? For the women of 18th century Korea, romance is a girlish affectation which must be outgrown in order to fulfil one’s proper obligations to a new family and the old by becoming the ideal wife to a man not of one’s own choosing. Love, in this world, would be more than an inconvenience. It would be a threat to the social order. In Hong Chang-pyo’s The Princess and the Matchmaker (궁합, Gunghab), each and every decision is dictated by birth, but as our soothsayer reminds us, serendipitous meetings can change all that’s gone before.

A severe drought is plaguing the subjects of Joseon, and their eyes are on their king to sort it out. For complicated reasons, many assume the pause in the rains is down to the gods’ wrath over the aborted wedding of problematic princess Songhwa (Shim Eun-kyung) some three years previously. Even before her failed marriage made her a flawed woman, Songhwa had always been tainted with an aura of ill fortune seeing as her mother died in childbirth. A reading of her astrological charts implied her presence was bad for the king (Kim Sang-kyung) and so she was sent away only to be called back when another reading revealed her presence may be essential to the king’s recovery from illness. She’s been at the court ever since but the taboo of her supposed bad luck has never left her. The king determines he’ll have to marry Songhwa off to improve the public mood but with her reputation who will they be able to find for a husband? With names thin on the ground, the king decides on a series of open auditions with the royal astrologer announcing the “winner” after a thorough examination of their birth charts.

It goes without saying that no one is especially interested in Songhwa’s opinion. Still naive and innocent, Songhwa is quite looking forward to finally getting married though a frank conversation with a recently hitched friend perhaps helps to lower her expectations. Still, she’d at least like to see the face of the man she’ll be spending the rest of her life with and so she sneaks out of the palace and goes investigating. Her first ventures outside of the walls which have protected her all her life are marked by a sense of magical freedom, though what she sees there later shocks her. Her subjects starve, and blame her for their starving. Lamenting the poor nobleman who will be taking one for the team in marrying the notoriously ugly and difficult Princess Songhwa, they pray for her wedding day and the rain they fully expect to fall.

Given all of this ill feeling towards the princess, it doesn’t take much to guess what sort of men are prepared to toss their hats into the ring. The suitors may look attractive on the surface, as Songhwa discovers, but each has faults not visible in his stars. One is a child, another a womanising playboy. It comes to something when the worst possible match isn’t the murderous psycho posing a philanthropist but the ambitious social climber who will stop at nothing to advance his cause.

Some might say the sacred art of divination is a bulwark against court intrigue, but this like anything else is open to manipulation. The king’s old astronomer has been taking bribes for years – something brought to light by ace investigator with a talent for divination Seo Do-yoon (Lee Seung-gi) with help from shady street corner soothsayer Gae-shi (Jo Bok-rae). Appointed to the position himself, Seo unwittingly holds the keys to Songhwa’s future though that isn’t something he’d given particular consideration to. His job was just to read the charts before everything started getting needlessly complicated. When his list of candidates goes missing he has no choice but to start visiting the ones he can remember in person which is how he ends up repeatedly running into Songhwa in disguise and, despite himself, beginning to fall in love with her.

Songhwa, trapped in a golden cage, longs to live a life of her own free from the patriarchal demands of a hierarchical society. She bucks palace authority by sneaking out on her own, but never seriously attempts to avoid her miserable fate or resist the tyranny of an arranged marriage, only to be allowed foreknowledge of the kind of life for which she has been destined. Nevertheless, determining her own future later becomes something within her grasp once the corruption has been uncovered and the art of prophecy exposed for what it is. Destiny is more malleable than it first seems and as Seo advises the king, when compassion reigns the heavens will open. True harmony is not born of a rigid adherence to facts and figures assigned by the arbitrary conditions of birth, but by a careful consideration of the feelings of others. A life without love is as starved as one without rain and the truly harmonious kingdom is the one in which all are free to feel it fall where it may.


The Princess and the Matchmaker was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)