By Noel Vera
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho
I KNOW, I know, I know, I know — if you’re sick of the genre as I am you probably don’t want to hear about yet another super-powered protagonist, let alone the first ever to come out of South Korea.
Yet I think Yeon Sang-ho’s Psychokinesis (Yeom-Iyeok, 2018) is different. Or different enough to be worth a look.
Lemme tell you first what the movie’s not: it’s not an overblown, overproduced, overlong megaproduction with over a dozen hyperjuiced characters battling over the fate of the world; it does not feature smart-alecky dialogue expertly designed to defuse skepticism and cynicism by adopting its own skeptical cynical attitude (the movie is committed to its own cheesiness); and it’s not stuffed to the gills with state-of-the-art digital effects (the effects — when they’re not blessedly practical — are barely passable, as if the filmmakers had other priorities than making their work look professionally slick).
What it is is a parable of failed fatherhood seeking redemption. Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) walked away from his wife and child years ago; he’s even come up with an explanation for his act, thinking they wouldn’t want to be associated with a loser like him. The past few years he’s worked as a security guard, supplementing his meager income with a little theft on the side; along the way he sips from a mountain spring enriched by Essence of Meteorite, and somehow gains telekinetic powers.
The first time Seok-heon hears from his estranged (now full-grown) daughter Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung) she’s doing well: she and her mother have developed a particularly tasty Korean fried chicken (KFC — a thing in Korea that has apparently spread worldwide), and their hole-in-the-wall has grown into a popular local draw. Unfortunately, a gang-affiliated construction company wants to buy the store’s location cheap for its own large-scale office development project; while defending their little eatery against an assault by hired thugs, Roo-mi’s mother is killed. Which is how Seok-heon got updated on his daughter’s life: she felt he at least deserved a call, if little else.
Does Seok-heon use his newfound powers to defend Roo-mi’s tiny establishment against corporate greed? Not really — when father and daughter attend a neighborhood association meeting in response to the recent violence, Seok-heon’s advice is to not risk their necks and just leave; he’s just conceived the idea of supporting them both by using his powers to perform onstage magic tricks, and to hell with the others. The man means well but his thickheadedness becomes a constant source of frustration for Roo-mi.
Seok-heon eventually gets the message: Roo-mi is serious about defending her little chicken joint; the message hits home especially hard when it dawns on him that idealistic lawyer Kim Jung-hyun (Park Jung-min) — who provides the neighborhood association with free legal advice — may be in love with his daughter. Seok-heon has landed himself in a situation many a wayward dad may find familiar: he has to earn back his daughter’s trust by being more enthusiastic about her cause than her wannabe boyfriend, at same time he has to re-establish his role as father and guardian when there’s already a potential rival in the horizon (which brings to mind a popular online meme “Rules to Remember When Dating My Daughter No. 9: I’m Not Afraid to Go Back in Jail.”)
The movie has its share of digital and practical SFX but easily the single most effective effect is Ryu Seung-ryong’s face as Seok-heon, Roo-mi’s father. Where most superheroes are boyishly pretty or craggily heroic — at most sporting a goatee or the odd mustache — Seok-heon’s face is nakedly, unrelievedly commonplace, with jowls that lend him a melancholy Droopy Dog expression. He’s about as far from a superhero as one can possibly imagine with all the accompanying human vices, from pride to greed to cowardice (Though strangely not lust — the only woman in his life apparently is Roo-mi). Unlike, say, a Henry Cavill or a Chris Evans, his demeanor does not immediately suggest courage or confidence; he has to grow into the role painfully, in fits and starts.
Also love the movie’s villain (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to watch!). When we first meet the construction gang it’s being led by President Min (Kim Min-jae), an odious corporate suit whose swagger is easy to loathe; turns out that behind Min is the more highly placed Director Hong (Jung Yu-mi) — a hilariously foulmouthed, unpredictable charmer who acts the perfect luncheon host one moment, and morphs into gleeful sociopath the next.
For all its virtues, the movie is hardly an example of elegant storytelling — the implied rivalry between Seok-heon and his wannabe son-in-law is never really developed; we fail to see the promised confrontation between the two most significant male figures in Roo-mi’s life. Likewise Director Hong is presented as a more prosperous alternative daughter to the stubborn Roo-mi (Hong is, in effect, Roo-mi with an unlimited credit line and absolutely no moral inhibitions whatsoever) and that possibility is barely even suggested before it’s summarily dropped.
But who cares? What matters is that Yeon Sang-ho (who also directed the underrated zombies-on-rails thriller Train to Busan) drags the superhero and his overblown adventures back down to Earth where they firmly belong, his characters flawed and believable, his villains funny and unpredictable, his tragicomic adventures human and modestly scaled. Best superhero movie of the year — of the past several years? Absolutely.