Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2018


Why him?

On corporate takeovers, dumb luck, and Psychokinesis' fun but cautious approach to the idea of superpowers

Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Screenplay: Sang-ho Yeon
Starring: Seung-Ryong Ryu, Eun-kyung Shim, Min-jae Kim, Jung-min Park, Seung-mok Yoo, Jeong-eun Lee, Hang-ho Tae and Yu-mi Jung
Not rated / 1 hour, 41 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / Netflix
(out of four)

As the old gunslinger says: Deserve's got nothing to do with it. The accident of being bestowed with superpowers is not an automatic endorsement of one's virtue. Superhero movies are usually premised on that assumption - that Bruce Wayne of course must be morally righteous and therefore his vigilantism is justified; that Steve Rogers is so naturally pure of heart that he will be committed only to noble causes; that Tony Stark will only use his financial and technological dominance for the right reasons.

We want this. We, and most superhero films, want to assume that possessing such enormous ability would bring out the best in someone. That near-absolute power would not, in fact, corrupt, absolutely or otherwise. Like so many other privileges, superpowers are often flukes of birth or flukes of circumstance. Right place, right time, right parents, right spider. In the happenstance of their distribution, such powers could just as easily find their way into the hands of an everyday schlub or sociopath as those of a would-be hero with a conscience. Could've been anyone getting bitten by that radioactive spider; could've been the most sadistic bully in class. Luckily it was a good kid instead.

We don't begrudge the Peter Parkers of the world their newfound power - it's only what they do with that power that counts. How they use their privilege. Logically, it follows that the sudden acquisition of godlike abilities would in all likelihood be corruptive - an angle that, leaving aside the aspirational pleasures of superhero movies, has always seemed like the most fertile. But in most cases, we don't even question what that power would truly do to someone until it's in the hands of a clear adversary. One of the rare examples to the contrary is Josh Trank's Chronicle, in which the most prominent of its three superpowered teenage boys (played by Dane DeHaan) rather quickly falls under the dark spell of his own power, and just like that our presumptive hero becomes our certified supervillain.

But more often than not* the chosen one is either inherently good, or inspired to become so almost immediately upon gaining otherworldly power. Sang-ho Yeon's Psychokinesis both follows this tradition and thwarts it. It goes out of its way to acknowledge that the superpowers possessed by its reluctant pseudo-superhero were nothing more than dumb luck, and that he's done very little in his life to warrant any commendation. And then it proceeds to show us a man who chooses to use them for good because he realizes he's been granted an unearned but much-needed shot at redemption. If he can save a whole lot of other people in the process, so be it.

* At least in movies; I can't speak with any expertise on comic books themselves, or when, where and how often they've broken with the standard on-screen formula.

The dumb luck in question was: He needed a sip of water. It just so happened that the spring he drank from had recently been struck by a meteor, and in drinking the ... I'm gonna go with radioactive water, he gained the ability to manipulate physical objects with his mind, leap tall buildings, the usual. Maybe even fly, at least once he gets the hang of things. But Seok-hyun (Seung-Ryong Ryu) is no hero. Failed husband, absent father; now, in middle age, he's still restoring to stealing things like toilet paper and instant coffee to cut financial corners. He lives in a small, cluttered studio apartment. Like Unbreakable's David Dunn before him, he does, incidentally, work as a security guard for a living, but it's a low-level, low-responsibility job that you get the feeling he simply stumbled into. His boss doesn't like him much, and respects him even less.

In their origins, superheroes are often nudged in the right direction with an immediate and specific cause or objective rooted in moral justice - some form of it, anyway - and Seok-hyun is no exception. After spending his first few days with inexplicable powers trying to parlay it into a magician act, he gets the chance for more substantive application when he reunites with his estranged daughter Roo-mi (Eun-kyung Shim) in the worst of circumstances. Roo-mi has been fighting a real-estate battle along with a dwindling handful of other small-business owners, all trying to save their shops from the hostile takeover of a corporate conglomerate. Roo-mi was a one-time hotshot chef whose chicken restaurant has been languishing in obscurity, but who has continued fighting to preserve it. Her mother has been running the place with her, and fights for it until literally her last breath. She dies at the hands of the corporate thugs who've been trying to strong-arm everyone - through a series of nightly raids - into giving up their property. Seok-hyun shows up at the funeral and witnesses those very same thugs - led* by President Min (Min-jae Kim) - crash the funeral with their disingenuous condolences.

* Of course, Min has someone to answer to as well. In one of the film's most inspired choices, Yu-mi Jung shows up as the woman behind the curtain, as ruthless and diabolical as she is passive-aggressively cheerful. Jung delivers the film's best performance in a small but crucial role.

Seok-hyun knows he should get involved with trying to save his daughter's livelihood (as well as the other neighborhood tenants holding strong against the increasingly aggressive corporate maneuvers), and knows his newfound powers can - or might, or should - be a part of that equation. He's just not exactly sure how. Part of the fun of how Psychokinesis plays out is in the way the character, still early in the process of discovering what he's capable of, does most of the discovering on the fly, forced into action. Strike that - action wouldn't even be the right word. He's not used to physical violence, and even in his attempts to ward off Min and his heavies - who inevitably show up again, weapons in hand, to continue their intimidation campaign - his conscious intentions do no good; it's his natural impulses that do all the work. A pair of gangsters attack, he throws up his arms as a typical defensive reflex ... and whoosh. They fly backwards and land violently against the walls. He looks at his hands in disbelief - he didn't know he had it in him. A few levitation tricks, maybe - but this?

His abilities are not just new additions, but rather direct extensions of his ordinary-guy timidness - a reverse supercharge. Defense as offense. At least until he figures out how to do any of this stuff on purpose. Involuntary as it may be, Seok-hyun's sudden street-fight proficiency saves the day (initially, at least), each knee-jerk reaction transforming into a devastating act of force, laying waste to the whole gang, who slink away pathetically licking their wounds.

Like Yeon's previous feature, the zombie thriller Train to Busan, Psychokinesis revolves around the mending of a father/daughter relationship. Though there's little doubt about where it's ultimately headed, there's a maturity to the way it handles both the relationship - and all the mistakes and failures that our burgeoning superhero made along the way - and the fact of superpowers themselves. The film has a lot of fun with him, and with those powers, but it's not exactly celebratory about their existence (whether they're in noble hands or not), nor about their apparent necessity. It allows itself to get swept up in the moment - a regular guy with magic hands fighting the good fight against a proper big-business villain - while being soberingly resistant to its tantalizing possibility. In other words, Yeon thoughtfully suggests that using superpowers might be nice ... but it'd be best not to make a habit of it.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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