Tonight I saw 초능력자 (Choneungryeokja, which you could translate as “Psychic” or “Person with Supernatural Powers”1) with Miss Jiwaku, and I have to say that it actually pretty much was what one of my students described:
…pretty good for the first hour or so, and then ramps up an exponential curve of silliness until it hits infinite silliness at the end. That said, the film seems to have been received rather well by the Korean public, and some people are praising it. My experience is that films that are very highly praised in Korea are sometimes good, but often don’t seem so great to me, and this is no exception, as my feelings are very mixed about it.
So I’m going to explain why. I’ll start with the good stuff, and proceed to the stuff I thought didn’t work so well, but be warned, spoilage ahead. If you’re thinking of seeing it, I’d say people who like manga, who don’t mind the sort of overblown drama that Korean cinema and TV tend toward, would probably get a kick out of it… especially if they don’t go in expecting too much.
Hell, Korean SF films are rare enough as it is; it’s worth seeing just on account of that. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the silliness.
First off, the film at least attempts to handle its conceits relatively interestingly. The baddie is a sociopathic telepath with the power to control others like puppets, as long as he can see them. Apparently, the power is located in his eyes, not his brain–don’t ask me how, ask the screenwriters or director. That said, at least the baddie seems to make pretty constant, casual use of his powers in ways that make sense. In any physical confrontation, you can bet that every person in view (who isn’t immune to his mind-control, as the hero is) will be used as a meat puppet against the hero. And the hero, who also has superpowers, has very toned-down, human powers. He’s a “superman,” in a sense, but for most of the film his superness is quite subdued and he has to pay a hell of a price to pull of his feats.
Secondly, the film makes a connection I’ve been waiting for since Bong Joon-Ho flirted with it at the beginning of The Host: it connects the minjung aesthetics inherent in the film with the situation faced by migrant workers in Korea. The protagonist’s best friends are two migrant workers from Turkey and Ghana, with whom he works at a junkyard at the beginning of the story. Now, if you know my theory about Korean SF films, you know that I figure they’re categorizable into two essential aesthetic groups: minjok films, that tend towards essentially nationalist narratives (preoccupied with history or memory) and featuring cops or soldiers, and minjung narratives, which while they also feature themes of memory, focus on protagonists in the lower socioeconomic classes, and their struggle against authoritarian power systems and oppression. This film is not only clearly in the latter category, but it also suggests implicitly that the migrant laborer fits into the minjung category in Korea today. The film 방가방가, which I reviewed earlier this year, surely attempts to humanize migrant workers and to show their plight, but 초능력자 makes their status as part of Korea’s essential underdog class today much more explicit.
Thirdly, the film has a narrative drive. Unlike a lot of SF films, this is not about memory. I didn’t find anything in the film overtly referred to nationalist themes, to themes of memory or history, or any of that stuff that I find so often weighs down Korean SF films. It’s about a guy with a power, and what he does with it, and another guy who seems to have another power, and how he fights back against the first guy. The bad guy has reasons for why he’s a monster, at least somewhat; the hero seems like a nice guy before he turns heroic. There’s a love interest, but she’s not really central for most of the film.
Fourthly, I think thematically the idea of people being turned into zombie-like mesmerized figures who are walked mindlessly to their own doom by a powerful, evil, charismatic guy in a suit is very reflective of the present conundrum humanity (and Korea specifically, too) faces. I rather wished the villain had been older, rather than young and smooth-cheeked, as it might have added some strength to the possible political readings of the film.
But then there are the weaknesses:
First, the soundtrack all but announces the action. The plot feels more predictable than it actually is, because the music never lets up. If you want to know what will happen, listen to the music.
Second, there’s that silliness factor I mentioned: the story gets more and more far-fetched toward the end, and the “twist” ending is one you will see a mile away. Well, it’s far-fetched in the context of the expectations the film sets up. The thing is, once you’ve seen it, you realize this is much more like a superhero “origins story” than the film it seems to think it is at the beginning. It’s a bit like a Korean reimagining of that M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable (which I thought was one of the few decent films the man made). The thing is, usually in origins stories, we care more because we know where the hero will go later, what he or she will go on to do, and so on. This, I get the feeling, is an origins story for a superhero narrative that will never be followed through on.
Interestingly, the director apparently felt it was important to go with people using their superpowers not to destroy the world, but rather to survive, to get money to live off and so on. I think my third complaint is that the film didn’t think big enough. There’s no reason why a Korean superhero film can’t push the envelope. Not that I didn’t like the scope of the powers and plot, but in the end, it seemed like the world and universe were no different for the presence of superpeople here and there.
Fourth, I had a lot of trouble with the villain. From basically the first time we see him (as an adult) he is making boogly-eyed faces every time he uses his powers. I get it that he shouldn’t be so super as to pay no price for using his powers, but the faces he made were just silly. Likewise, and this may be a pet peeve, but I wish Korean villains didn’t throw so many shouting tantrums, and then switch immediately into soft, hushed, cool-guy tones of voice. It’s just… well, it’s so familiar now.
Fifth, well, as I said, things get exponentially sillier as the story goes on. Wanna see a crappy old van souped up to have turbojets on the back of it? Or, rather, a van that shoots fire out its exhaust pipe, which somehow makes it go much, much faster than anything else on the road? The flare gun built from a revolver and a cooking gas cannister was just odd, and I could not buy the last scene, not really, not even though I wanted to.
And sixth, the film’s manga stylistics didn’t do much for me. This last one is pretty much idiosyncratic. I tried to read some of the Death Note comics, and the weird-haired freaky-looking guy just annoyed me. So did the villain in this film, who was very much stylized along manga lines.
That said, the film was entertaining enough. I think it’s worth a watch… just go not expecting much. I may update this post as more thoughts ofccur to me, but I wanted to get my thoughts set down before they all dissipate.
1. Of course, if I were suggesting English titles, I’d probably suggest something more like Preternatural, or Telepath, or Psion.