What would Joe Average do if really given superpowers? This is the question South Korean director Sang-ho Yeon posits in his film Psychokinesis which deals with a lowly security guard who finds himself gifted with extraordinary powers and then must decide how to use them. With Marvel and DC duking it out to see who can dominate the ever-growing superhero market, it’s nice to see some independents out there throwing their hat into the ring.
There is nothing startlingly original about Yeon Sang-ho’s film Psychokinesis, hapless individual gaining powers that he is able to use to save others has been a staple ingredient in comics for almost as long as the medium has existed, so the key to a successful superhero movie is in having an engaging story, decent special effects to pull off the powers, a good villain for the audience to root against, and a relatable hero to cheer on. If you don’t have those crucial elements you end up with something like Marvel’s first attempt at Captain America or the abysmal Catwoman with Halle Berry, but what if you only manage two of the three?
When security guard Shin Seok-heon (Seung-ryong Ryu) drinks from a local spring, one that had been tainted by remnants from a fallen meteorite, he gains the ability to move things with his mind. His first thought is to how he can improve his crappy life by exploiting this new found power, and he quickly makes an appointment at a nearby nightclub to see if his gift can earn him some serious money. But when he learns that his estranged daughter Shin Roo-mi (Eun-kyung Shim) is in trouble, he abandons this idea of quick cash and runs to her aid. Seok-heon doesn’t quite get the “With great powers comes great responsibility” moment that steered young Peter Parker onto his path to superherodom; in this story the tragic family death isn’t partially the fault of the hero – like Uncle Ben’s was – but instead is the catalyst to bring the father and estranged daughter together.
The basic plot of Psychokinesis has to do with an evil real-estate developer who plans to tear down a bunch of small businesses to put up a mall for Chinese tourists. The current occupants want to be properly compensated, but of course evil corporations don’t work that way and soon windows are being smashed and people are getting hurt by an army of rent-a-thugs. Roo-mi runs a successful restaurant in this area, and she becomes the de facto leader of the protestors; it is her safety being threatened that causes our Seok-heon to set aside his showbiz plans. Now if you grew up watching television in the 70s, you will most likely be familiar with the plot of “Evil Real-Estate Goons vs Downtrodden Citizens,” as that was the plot of about every third episode of The Incredible Hulk—even the Disney movies back-in-the-day were no stranger to David and Goliath superpower plot lines, as they were used quite liberally in such films as The Absent Minded Professor and the Kurt Russell Dexter Riley movies. Sadly, Seok-heon’s hapless security guard has neither the affable charm of Fred MacMurray, nor the screen charisma of Kurt Russell, and so I found myself less than engaged during his heroics. Even the daughter in Psychokinesis isn’t all that fleshed out, and despite how hard actress Shim Eun-kyung tries to make her a plucky fighter—something more than a one-dimensional character—the script unfortunately keeps her pigeonholed as the damsel-in-distress for most of the movie. The one stand-out character in the film comes in the form of the villainous Director Hong (Yu-mi Jung) who is delightfully nasty as she chews up every available piece of scenery.
So with weak protagonists, a standard plot, but a good villain, we must now look at how the powers are depicted in this little superhero movie—and if they are convincing. Avengers: Infinity War probably spent more on catering than what director Yeon Sang-ho had to spend on the entirety of Psychokinesis, so one should not go in expecting to see that level of effects, but I’m happy to say what Yeon Sang-ho manages to bring to the screen is pretty damn good. Some of the CGI used for flying scenes were less than convincing, but the moments of Seok-heon tossing goons and cars around with his telekinetic attacks are easily on par with the great stuff we’ve seen on modern shows like Stranger Things. What really sells the superpower scenes is the body language actor Ryu Seung-ryong uses when deploying his psychokinetic attacks, and it’s really fun when he kind of goes Dark Phoenix.
The film tries to balance comedy, drama and social commentary, and that is probably the film’s greatest failing as the story never seems to completely gel. I give it to Yeon Sang-ho for trying to avoid the conventional ending these types of stories usually have, but I found the chosen conclusion to be a bit half-assed and unsatisfying. I hate ending this review on such a negative note because I did mostly have a good time watching this movie, but as a follow up to the excellent Train to Busan, maybe I was hoping for a little more. So I will say that Psychokinesis is more than worth your time checking out on Netflix, just lower your expectations as tad.