In a very strange coincidence — or a concerted act of counterprogramming — the smallest superhero movie in recent memory hit Netflix on the same day that the biggest superhero movie ever made exploded into theaters. And while “Psychokinesis” was inevitably subsumed into the endless shadow of “Avengers: Infinity War” (the most ambitious crossover event of all time!), this exuberant Korean import is convincing proof that the genre doesn’t always have to be about saving the world, or guarding the galaxy, or stopping a purple space Brolin from snapping his fingers and erasing half of humanity.
When enough spandex is involved, high stakes can be Kryptonite for good storytelling. Even in the monolithic Marvel Cinematic Universe, many of the best movies are the ones that think globally but act locally. The likes of “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” are so effective because they look inward rather than out, using power as a lens through which we might better understand the people who wield it, and not the other way around. Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” follow-up might lack the focus, complexity, and imagination to compete with those recent genre standouts, but — in the age of Thanos — it sure is refreshing to see a superhero movie that hinges on the fate of a small business.
Boasting more in common with something like Robert Townsend’s “The Meteor Man” than it does anything in the MCU, “Psychokinesis” was inspired by the 2009 “Yongsan Disaster,” in which six people were killed when Seoul police raided a watchtower full of evictees who’d been pushed out of their neighborhood and poorly compensated for their trouble. But Yeon, who managed to turn the zombie apocalypse into a slapstick farce, has little interest in dredging up the tragedy of it all. For all of the spandex social-realism at the heart of this superhero origin storytelling, “Psychokinesis” — like “Train to Busan” before it — really just uses the violence of class warfare as the backdrop for a comedy about a dad trying to make things right with his daughter.
Shin Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung) runs the hottest fried chicken restaurant in all of Seoul. It’s the kind of trendy but tasty under-the-radar joint that Anthony Bourdain might visit for his show. Alas, Roo-mi’s career is being cut off at the knees, as a mob-run construction company wants to demolish her neighborhood to make room for a shopping mall, and they’re sending in some goons to pressure current tenants to leave. When Roo-mi’s mother is accidentally killed in a clash with the bad guys, the young chef is forced to call her delinquent father, a bumbling security guard named Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong).
But Seok-heon, who abandoned his daughter as a child, might finally be able to offer Roo-mi the overdue support he failed to provide when she was young. As luck would have it, he recently drank spring water that’s been tainted by a strange meteorite, and he’s developing the ability to move things with his mind. It’s not the kind of power that could bring about world peace, but it might be enough to bring justice to a neighborhood in need.
For all its modesty and silliness, “Psychokinesis” unfolds with the familiar structure of a superhero origin story: Seok-heon discovers his strange abilities, tries to make up for his previous mistakes, and eventually gets caught up in a third-act fight that reveals his powers to the world. The big difference here is Yeon’s focus on how ordinary these characters are, and how Seok-heon’s newfound powers reveal the powerlessness of the regular people around him.
Seok-heon isn’t a genius, or a billionaire playboy, or even a small-time crook who’s secretly got a six-pack. He’s just a middle-aged moron who happens to be in the right place at the right time (as for everyone else we see drink from that magic spring … maybe they’ll come back in the sequel). Always looking for a shortcut, Seok-heon’s first thought upon learning about his gifts is to become a sleight-of-hand magician. He can make cards float without any string; he can make a necktie dance like a snake charmer. Ryu’s rumpled performance delightfully embodies a man who can’t think any bigger than that. The movie is light on deep laughs, but it’s always funny to watch the actor go through the contorted motions of trying to move things with his mind; clenching his fingers, shaking his hair, even warbling his tongue.
“Psychokinesis” fully embraces the ridiculousness of its premise, creating the rare superhero movie where people refuse to accept what they’re seeing. One amusing sequence finds a cop watching cell-phone video of Seok-heon’s powers and refusing to believe the footage isn’t fake. As in many of the most popular 21st century South Korean movies, every supporting character is given their own spark of life — no bit part is taken for granted. Best of all is Jung Yu-mi as Director Hong, the closest thing the story has to a big bad. A demented corporate mob boss who offsets her demure appearance with an iron fist (and excited bursts of expletives), Director Hong briefly shocks “Psychokinesis” back to life once it becomes clear that Yeon isn’t going to give the film’s central relationship the dimension it deserves.
The dynamic between Seok-heon and Roo-mi is as heartwarming as it is simple, their newfound bond presented as something of a consolation prize for two people in a society that doesn’t really care about them. Even as Seok-heon comes into his power, the overarching truth is that one man is no match for the strictures of capitalism — it’s only so so much fun to fly when everyone else is stuck on the ground. “Psychokinesis” doesn’t leave you with much more than a bittersweet feeling about it all, but it’s an appropriately different takeaway from such a refreshingly different superhero movie.
“Psychokinesis” is now streaming on Netflix.