Yeon Sang-ho, director of the thrilling 2016 zombie flick Train To Busan, has tackled a new genre with the Netflix film Psychokinesis: the superhero movie. And I’ll be honest — this new film never quite reaches the heights of his earlier effort. Both use their respective genres to comment on class, social issues, and — in particular — fatherhood. But Psychokinesis is a slower, almost lackadaisical affair, without the edge-of-your-seat intensity, surprising humor, and gut-punching dread that made Train To Busan such a wild ride (pun oh-so-intended). Instead, Psychokinesis works best if read as a sort of refreshing antidote to the world of MARVEL! and DC! we find ourselves in today. It’s a pointed reaction to the exhausted “Superhero Origin Story”, one that brings the genre back down to earth and mines success by subverting expectations every step of the way.
And as far that that origin goes… it’s dispensed with in an almost offhand fashion. A meteorite crashes to earth and infects some nearby spring water with a strange glowing… something. Then the protagonist, a lazy security guard named Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong), drinks some of that spring water and BAM! He gets a tummy ache. And also the power to move things with his mind.
That’s all there is to it. The film doesn’t explore the greater implications of that space rock or its power-imbuing essence. There’s no indication that anyone else has received similar superpowers. Maybe there is a whole other, grander tale to be told along those lines, but that isn’t THIS tale. This story is about the way his newfound gift gives Seok-heon the opportunity to become a better man — and a better father to his daughter, a popular fried chicken entrepreneur named Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung).
Roo-mi is facing her own challenges. A construction company has plans to build a shopping mall where her store is, and they’ve hired a bunch of thugs to strong-arm the shopkeepers on Roo-mi’s street into abandoning their livelihoods and vacating the block. Roo-mi and her neighbors are determined to stand their ground and resist — despite the fact that one violent late-night clash leads to the accidental death of her own mother. At the funeral, Roo-mi sees her father again for the first time since he walked out on his family when she was a young girl (he had his reasons, she has her resentment). And though Seok-heon had no greater ambition for his powers than to become a rich and famous magician, he winds up joining Roo-mi’s cause to protect her. There isn’t a maniacal villain to defeat or a world-ending scheme to thwart. There’s just a neighborhood about to be trampled by the march of corporate greed — and if it didn’t happen to be his daughter’s neighborhood, he probably wouldn’t have taken notice at all.
The point is, Seok-heon may be superpowered, but he isn’t a superHERO. And in fact, he never manages to use his powers with the sort of awe-inspiring grace we’ve become accustomed to seeing on screen. Sure, even Spider-Man fumbled at first as he tried to learn how to be the web-slinging wall-crawler we know and love (an origin we’ve witnessed on film MULTIPLE TIMES already), but for Seok-heon, any sense of grace eludes him. From start to finish, his psychokinesis is a process of red-faced squinting, a whole-body struggle to manifest his desire upon the world around him. Can he fly? Yes. Can he fly well? Hell no. “Flying” is just Seok-heon flinging his body into the air for as long as his concentration can hold him afloat, and then crashing spectacularly back to the ground only to do it all again. It’s funny, but it’s also relatable. Humans aren’t supposed to have these kinds of gifts — so why should they be able to use them beautifully? And yet, when it comes time for Seok-heon to really unleash his full force, the very ugliness of the act makes it somehow even more impressive.
So, if you’re tired of the slick grandeur and absurdly high stakes of the tentpole superhero flicks, Psychokinesis may be the perfect palate cleanser. If nothing else, it’s a worthwhile reminder that not all heroes wear capes, or spandex, or masks — and there is plenty of villainy in the world that doesn’t come with a maniacal laugh.