‘Psychokinesis’: Netflix & Train to Busan Dir’s Superhero ‘Marvel’
While we’re still recovering from the onslaught of Marvel’s mahasangam, the Deadpool sequel is already on its way to make sure the momentum isn’t lost. Die you may, but the superheroes will be present till your last exasperated breath.
In an exciting turn of events, Netflix dropped a little film on its global network in April. As you’ve rightly guessed, it’s a superhero film, which is why we’re on to it here. The film is called Psychokinesis (definitely not the most interesting title to lead a superhero film), and it has come straight from South Korea.
The Korean gem is directed by Yeon Sang-ho, the man who brought surprising urgency to the undead zombie genre with Train to Busan in 2016. Psychokinesis released in the first quarter of 2018 in South Korea, and then made its way to the streaming giant.
The narrative journey begins through two individuals: a young woman entrepreneur and a middle-aged security guard. Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung) is a successful business woman running a wildly popular fried chicken eatery, while Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) spends his days and nights in the mundane routine of a guard keeping an establishment safe.
And then the plot takes ugly turns for both. Roo-mi’s restaurant is part of an area that the local builder mafia wishes to wipe out so that swanky malls can take over, and her resistance leads to a sudden tragedy that brings Seok-heon into her life. As filmic contrivances go, Seok-heon turns out to be Roo-mi’s father who abandoned her as a child.
Seok-heon, meanwhile, drinks fountain water from a tap which incidentally contained minerals from a meteorite that dropped from the sky, and to his utter surprise, he gains telekinetic powers.
Fate brings Seok-heon and Roo-mi together, but there is a strong current of resentment. Roo-mi can’t forgive her father for forsaking his responsibilities, but Seok-heon decides to be with her irrespective of her rebukes, as he senses that his daughter’s life is in potential danger.
As you may have guessed by now, Psychokinesis is very different from the big bang boom that you’ve been ushered into by Hollywood. It’s a film deeply concerned with social injustice and draws its strength from scenes where none of the superhero hullaballoo is happening. Unlike its Hollywood counterparts, it is so seeped in class struggle and social commentary that it will make you even more aware of the overindulgences of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The film’s chief theme is resistance of the dispossessed and it is loosely based on the tragic events that took place in Seoul’s Yongsan District in 2009. Five individuals and one police officer were killed during the the deadly conflict between demonstrators fighting against redevelopment and police.
Director Sang-ho’s sympathies clearly lie with the protesters, as he slowly brings us into their struggle through Roo-mi. The indifference of the larger system and how institutional corruption can corner commoners, supplies the film with its much-needed resolve.
But all this dirt and grime of dissent is not to say it’s a serious film. As the Korean mainstream wisdom goes, Sang-ho peppers the grim struggle of Roo-mi and her clan through the bumbling fool of her father, whose powers first elicit laughter, then awe among the compatriots. But the trump card of the film lies in Jung Yu-mi as Director Hong (of the construction company) who, busting all expectations, turns out to be a villain dipped in the sauce of black humour. Sharply dressed in corporate fashion, and sporting a fringe cut, she swishes the film’s most powerful statement with elemental humour.
Seok-heon might have powers that can thrill, and wow some, but he can never win against the system. Big conglomerates who virtually run every capitalist society irrespective of their political establishments essentially hold the real authority, and they can easily crush anyone with even superpowers like him. Cut in slim slices of words, this threat by Director Hong is a persuasive social commentary on our promised land.
Sang-ho’s last film Train to Busan incited tears for a potent father-daughter story, and Psychokinesis too wishes to wring out the same though it falls a little short. But it makes up for it with drollness, mocking the very idea of a superhero by presenting a pot-bellied middle-aged man, not a six-packed dude as the man of the moment. The very idea of a superhero and superpowers is partially preposterous and Sang-ho understands that fact quite wisely.
He grounds his characters in the everyday reality of Korea, deepens the crisis by grinding on the wheels of class conflict. Even for the superpowers to work, our hero has to shake his limbs, tighten his muscles, and even wiggle his tongue, almost a cry to shun the glamour of superhero-dom.
Finally, the superpowers may win a little battle, but they can never outstrip the systematic manipulation. The conclusion of the film is both hopeful, and a stark reminder of how ordinary commoners are fated to be, even with extraordinary powers.
So, if you find a little breathing space between Marvel and DC, between excess and hype, do reach out to this Korean gem. You’ll not be disenchanted.
(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder.)
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