Sang-Ho Yeon’s Netflix film tells the story of a slob who develops psychic abilities and is worth watching if you feel like skipping ‘Deadpool 2
On April 25, Netflix unceremoniously released the miraculous South Korean superhero film Psychokinesis, a character-driven action film about a slob who develops psychic abilities after he accidentally drinks meteorite-infused spring water. The folks in charge of Netflix’s Instant video releases seem to have thought so little of Psychokinesis — the latest film by Sang-Ho Yeon, the talented writer/director of the breakout 2016 zombie thriller Train to Busan — that they didn’t even wait to release Yeon’s latest on a Friday, the day they normally reserve for their most high-profile titles. Instead, Netflix released Psychokinesis on a Wednesday, a piddling nothing of a weekday that’s only significant because ha ha, Humpday.
Still, Yeon adds a sneaky emotional resonance to what could have been just another deadbeat dad redemption story, a formulaic narrative that has become a staple of American blockbusters thanks to Steven Spielberg’s (understandably!) popular daddy issues dramas. Yeon struggles with his film’s central concern: does a lousy father deserve a place in his daughter’s life given that his absence has already created significant emotional distress? In questioning that by-now trite restorative narrative and its attendant shop-worn tropes, Yeon delivers a superhero film of rare emotional resonance and potency. If you’re looking for an alternative to this weekend’s Deadpool 2, this is the movie for you.
There are a lot of spoilers ahead. If you don’t want to be ravished by spoilers, you should save yourself some grief and watch Psychokinesis now.
For starters: Yeon sympathizes with bad dad Seok-heon (Seung-ryong Ryu) without blithely confirming his character’s paternal and often condescending point-of-view. Seok-heon is pretty much the only male character who gets stuff done: every other semi-efficient and/or emotionally complex character is a woman, particularly Seok-heon’s conflicted daughter Ru-mi (Eun-kyung Shim) and his power-hungry corporate antagonist Director Hong (Yu-mi Jung). Seok-heon’s point-of-view is ultimately validated, but Psychokinesis isn’t just about a well meaning guy who takes some licks, flexes his muscles and saves the day. Instead, Yeon’s latest is believably concerned with a sucky dad’s inevitable realization that he’s now living in his daughter’s world, a rite of passage that is confirmed at film’s end, when Ru-mi orders Seok-heon to use his powers to serve her restaurant’s customers.
Psychokinesis begins with a TV news item about Ru-mi’s own Gaem Gaem Chicken restaurant, a popular local business in Seoul’s 6th Nampyeong district. In this personal interest story, Ru-mi reveals her backstory in a couple of expository lines of dialogue: her father left when she was very little, so her mother had to support them both by re-selling hair-pins down in the city’s subway. Ru-mi can’t bring herself to look at the camera. She’s proud of herself, but you can tell she’s blushing — even without the camera crew’s unkind application of the kind of cameraphone app that adds blush, stickers, and puppy dog snouts to users’ selfies — when the off-camera news correspondent asks her why she doesn’t have a boyfriend. It’s an embarrassing question, but not because Ru-mi doesn’t believe in herself. You can see a lot of mixed emotions struggling to surface as she modestly describes the impact of Seok-heon’s abandonment: “My mom…she’s had a tough time.” The forced nature of Ru-mi’s matter-of-fact tone sets the table for a number of Ru-mi and Seok-heon’s subsequent conversations.
Soon after this introductory sequence, we flash-forward to the present, where Ru-mi struggles to defend her storefront from burly, hard-hat-clad Pinkerton types. These guys are acting on behalf of Taesan, an omnivorous mega-corporation that wants to raze Ru-mi’s neighborhood so that they can develop “a large-scale, duty-free shopping center for Chinese tourists.” The locals are united with Ru-mi in their refusal to take Taesan’s buy-out offers. This is their home and they won’t be made to move. Unfortunately, that stubborn-ness in the face of Taesan’s overwhelming influence — about two dozen men against one well-barricaded woman — doesn’t serve Ru-mi well. Her mother (Yeong-seon Kim) pays the price when she, trying to defend Su-mi, crashes their Gaem Gaem Chicken van in a vain attempt at dispersing the mob. Ru-mi’s mom dies from this collision, but not before the above-mentioned meteor passes over-head. Ru-mi’s mom cries as the pretty space debris flies by. And for a moment, it looks like she’s wishing for a miracle that will save her daughter. Granted, this trope is hardly progressive: a well-meaning, but effectively powerless woman can’t save her own child and therefore relies on her historically negligent ex-husband to set things right. But…well, hang on.
Seok-heon makes an appearance at his ex’s wake, but only because Ru-mi found his phone number in her dead mom’s cell phone. Here we get another semi-substantial scene that has nothing to do with Seok-heon’s powers, and everything to do with Ru-mi’s emotions. She apologizes to him for “calling out of the blue,” but her deeply internalized rage — and the attendant ways that she’s chosen to suppress it — is apparent by the way that she walks away right after she orders him to get some food for himself. Still, Ru-mi isn’t a pushover. She sees a group of Taesan heavies — including a guy whose haircut she messed up earlier — and literally charges at them head first. Here, cocky Taesan rep Min (Min-jae Kim) tries to win an ouch contest despite the apparent fact that he is crashing the wake of a woman who died trying to defend her family from his company. He whines to Ru-mi, “You’re making my life so difficult. I’m so stressed out.” Then he gallingly doubles down on his ridiculous self-victimizing claims: “Your mother passed away while driving. Why are you putting the blame on us? You obviously think like that because you’re completely delusional.” This scene is important later when Hong shows up, and reveals Min to be a boot-licking toady.
Still, you might be asking: what kind of man is Seok-heon that he can idly watch all this happen without even trying to intervene? When we first meet him, Ryu’s character is a boorish security guard who thinks he’s clever for stealing toilet paper from work and instant coffee packets from a nearby bank. He doesn’t go through the usual hero’s journey motions of struggling to master his powers, as so many formerly-impotent men do after they become super-hard. In fact, Yeon bluntly mocks the emasculating nature of Seok-heon’s pre-powers crisis in a scene where Ryu’s protagonist tries to show off to Ru-mi by using his mind powers to make his yellow neck tie dance around like a snake. It’s important to note that we’ve already seen, in two earlier scenes, that Seok-heon has mastered his supernatural skills. Now the only thing that can stop Seok-heon from getting it up is Ru-mi, the strongest woman in the film.
Thankfully, Ru-mi isn’t just the buzzkill who reminds Seok-heon of his past. In fact, she owns this confrontation, and finally gets to tell him off in a way that doesn’t just make her look like a major stepping stone in her dad’s path to emotional growth. Look at the way that Yeon focuses on Shim’s actions and Ryu’s reactions. Ru-mi stops her dad’s impromptu magic act and takes control of the scene with an accusation: “Do you remember when our eyes met, as you were leaving at the break of dawn?” It’s a super-charged moment, one that could have easily boiled over into unbearable bathos. But Shim holds it together until we see, in a reaction shot, that she’s not getting through to him. So she continues, while holding back hiccup-sized sobs: “You pretended like you didn’t see me.” Again, she can’t bring herself to look him in the eyes.
Seok-heon tries to regain control of this conversation, but Ru-mi stops him: “I’m trying to pull myself together, to get my life on track.” At this point, she can’t hold back and the rage she’s been holding in for who knows how long comes out in a way that she instantly regrets: “But you showed up, and you’re ruining everything now!” Shim quickly pats down her face with her palms and apologizes. Then she adds something that she can’t take back: “But don’t pretend like you’re my dad now after being absent for years. It’s disgusting.” She walks off, and for a second, he’s stunned into silence. The last thing we see in this scene is an over-the-shoulder medium shot of him processing what he just heard. Seconds later, as he’s slouching away: he flashes back to the day he left and the time his daughter caught him leaving.
Any succeeding displays of Seok-heon’s computer-generated super-abilities are colored by this scene. There are clear stakes now, and they’re confirmed every time Seok-heon can’t bring himself to look Ru-mi, Hong, or anyone else directly in the eye. Ryu admirably holds his own with Shim, and makes you believes that Seok-heon not only wants to make things up to Ru-mi, but also take his place in her narrative. At film’s end, Seok-heon makes a symbolic gesture that not only gives audiences a sense of closure, but also gives Ru-mi and her neighbors a genuine gift: the ability to start over without feeling like they failed.
But before Seok-heon can prove himself in battle, he must confront Hong, a villain who says all the right things, but always has a nasty smile on her face that reveals her bullying nature. Hong is not, as one newscaster cheekily puts it, defined by “super-powerlessness.” She has flunkies savagely beat Min while she doctors evidence against Seok-heon. And she controls the sensation-chasing news media and the hammer-to-nail cops. The biggest difference between the city’s equally mindless police officers and news anchors is that Hong doesn’t have total control over the latter group, as a later scene proves. Still, Hong is in charge no matter how she claims that “those with real power aren’t people like us[…]they have power over this country, the Republic of Korea. The country itself is their power. Everyone else, including you and me, are just slaves of this society.”
Yeon puts the lie to Hong’s protests by cross-cutting to a riot that pointedly brings to mind the real-life Yongsan tragedy, a 2009 incident that left five Seoul tenants dead after riot police rushed into action without sufficient information. Seok-ki Kim, the former head of the city’s police force, resigned in disgrace after this incident. But in the film, Seoul’s policemen are briefly humanized in their own powerlessness, just as the rioters — led by Ru-mi, who chucks soju-based Molotov cocktails with unrestrained gusto — are presented like a wild force of nature. The individual participants in this violent set piece — the flashiest in the film — aren’t strictly good or evil. If anyone is to blame, it’s Min since he is literally revealed to be in the thick of the riot-gear-clad cops, like a tumor that’s co-opted the city’s potentially benevolent defenders.
Herein lies the secret of Psychokinesis‘s low-key maturity: Yeon makes you want to applaud Seok-heon’s realization that he not only cannot but really should not punch all his problems away — no matter how eminently punchable Min may be — by consistently focusing on the incremental evolution of Seok-heon and Ru-mi’s relationship. You can tell that she ultimately has more power than he does just from the scene where she takes him out to lunch at her favorite “stew place.” This scene is characteristically well-filmed and performed: Ryu purses his lips and hangs his head while Shim walks ahead of him without looking back once to see if he’s following her. Once they’re both seated, they talk about the potential health risks of having super-powers. And for once, this exchange isn’t a cheap way to foreshadow a plot contrivance about the biological limits of Seok-heon’s strictly imaginary powers. Instead, Ru-mi and Seok-heon’s dialogue functions as it should in any other drama: to develop their relationship in a semi-meaningful way. Modestly-scaled, and exceptionally well-realized scenes like this are why Psychokinesis is the superhero film of the summer. You just have to dig a little to find it