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Netflix's 'Psychokinesis' Is One of the Finest Superhero Movies of the Decade

psychokinesis
Netflix

If you’ve seen the severely underrated zombie movie Train to Busan, then you’ll already know that Yeon Sang-ho is a director who lays the cheese on thick. This isn’t a slight -- the best thing about his films is their incontrovertible earnesty. Though Psychokinesis -- the South Korean director's latest movie that was quietly released on Netflix this week -- is a little more refined than previous efforts, its core is crafted from Yeon's familiar sincerity.

Broadly speaking, Psychokinesis is a superhero film. After ingesting a supernatural entity from a medical spring, Shin Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) discovers that he’s developed -- surprise! -- psychokinetic abilities. But, as in all the best superhero films, his power is a means to an end rather than the main attraction. The meat on this film’s bones is the relationship between Seok-heon and his daughter, Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung, who also starred in Train to Busan). After walking out on the family when Roo-mi was 10, Seok-heon is forced back into her orbit by an accident involving an ongoing real estate war. She’s not particularly happy to have him around, but given that the development company is sending goons to scare the neighborhood folks out of their homes, her father's psychokinesis tends to come in handy.

Psychokinesis is easily one of the best of the superhero movies from the past decade, largely because the world that Yeon has constructed is decidedly not super. The ramifications of Seok-heon’s superheroics are immediate, as is the realization that there’s something inherently silly about them to begin with. When a police officer sees footage of Seok-heon single-handedly taking on a group of men, he dismisses it as a hoax, which is perfectly justified in reality-grounded logic: a video of a man waving his arms and a few other men falling over (i.e., a battle scene stripped of its dramatic score and flashy editing) doesn’t exactly seem supernatural at all.

Shim Eun-Kyung roo-mi
Shim Eun-Kyung as Roo-mi | Netflix

On top of that, this story doesn’t have any supervillains -- the baddies never rise above the level of corporate spook. There aren’t any other super-mentors to show our incredibly ordinary hero the ropes of controlling his powers. When his psychokinesis begins to develop, his first thought is to get a job doing tricks at a nightclub. When he starts using his newfound ability for good, it’s not in a cape and tights -- he sticks with his windbreaker and khakis. Yet, when Seok-heon finally takes flight in the final act of the film, it’s a breathtaking sight. To that end, Yeon seems to be getting at a deeper truth: Parenting is perhaps the only real superpower that exists. It’s that instinct that seems to truly propel Seok-heon’s actions towards the end, and it all unfolds so earnestly that it’s impossible to begrudge Yeon over just how maudlin the story becomes.

It’s also difficult to overstate how affecting it is to see a middle-aged Korean dad posited as a superhero, soaring over Seoul like Superman. How often is a character like that allowed to take the lead, let alone fly?

The only pity is that Psychokinesis isn’t receiving a theatrical release outside of South Korea. Despite being about an ultimately mundane conflict, it’s filmed with the same energy and grand sense of scale as any recent blockbuster. Maybe it’s a little silly, but all superhero films are. Yeon is just the rare breed of director who knows how to turn that kind of genre stamp to his advantage.

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Karen Han is a writer based in New York City. Her work appears on Vox.com, The Atlantic, SlashFilm, and New York magazine's Vulture.