Waking up in a crashed car and having to reverse-engineer your identity isn’t new to slick and cerebral crime thrillers, but when said identity keeps switching around every 12 hours? That’s how you get a Spiritwalker. Writer/director Yoon Jae-keun’s sophomore feature, debuting a decade after his first, Heartbeat, Spiritwalker is a cleverly shot thriller equally comfortable with body-swap gags and close-up fistfights. Its over-the-top premise and the subsequent explanation might not hold up under—or even warrant—the kind of scrutiny inspired by the latest whiteboard-diagram action movie from certified mindfreak Christopher Nolan, but the muddled chaos is mitigated enough by a savvy ensemble and Yoon’s creative approach that it actually becomes exciting that the plot seems to crumble behind us like a cartoon bridge.
As we attempt to outpace the cavernous plot hole opening larger by the second, we run across plenty of inspired action. The predicament faced by Kang I-an (Yoon Kye-sang, called Ian in the English sub) is compelling, not only because of the Bourne-like mystery of his initial circumstances—bloodied, besuited and in the middle of being burgled—but by the ensuing sci-fi silliness that sees him involuntarily Quantum Leap his way into the body of a gang boss (Park Yong-woo). Ian unwillingly hops bodies at noon and midnight on the dot (you can literally set your watch by it), finding himself with the lives and skills of those he now inhabits, though none of their memories. Worst of all, he has nothing left of himself except his consciousness. He’s not sure who he is, but he sure as hell isn’t any of these people.
If not for a well-rounded ensemble ready to kick in a few scene-selling seconds as the protagonist—Yoon Kye-sang predominately plays whomever Ian is for the time being, but sometimes the other actors take over in reflections and in brief moments of perspective-shifting fun—this wouldn’t work at all. Not only would we not buy it, we wouldn’t have a clue who was who. I still sometimes didn’t. But I liked it anyways, because Yoon Jae-keun’s intelligent visual storytelling interprets his script in a way where it’s legible enough to enjoy (if not explain) what’s going on, keeping his Face/Off from becoming Off/Putting.
Yoon Kye-sang, who recently appeared opposite Don Lee in the gang thriller The Outlaws, is adequately bewildered by his circumstances and physically competent as he starts fighting back against the murderous mobster plot in which he finds himself embroiled. Everyone’s looking for Ian, and Ian resists using whichever person he happens to be. Both Yoons (director and star; this is almost as confusing as the “who are you right now” plotting) allow choreographers Park Young-sik and Chung Seong-Ho to flex their skills in some adrenaline-juicing, running-at-the-camera chases and even better shootouts—including a waste-laying gun-fu finale that would leave John Wick dusty and bloodied.
But the reason those blends of conventional action stunts and martial arts work so well is because Spiritwalker isn’t self-serious enough to sweat a little silly exposition between its displaced hero and a local homeless man (Park Ji-hwan, making a meal of things). There’s humor and lightness interspersed, not in quippy one-liners but in ways that poke fun at the premise itself. Spiritwalker is constantly reinforcing its high-concept story through its characters’ own incredulous reactions. Moon Jin-ah (Lim Ji-yeon) is more than just Ian’s noirish lover, looking for her partner as he floats—disembodied—through those underworld types around her. And, sharper than your average heavies, the bad guys start to catch on to what’s happening, following along at just behind our logical pace. It makes for compelling sci-fi that trusts you to keep up. Sci-fi that doesn’t make you want to yell at the henchmen to get a clue. Sci-fi that focuses as much on the world as the gimmick—think Looper’s grimy time gamble but with body-hopping. That approach can sometimes leave your brain dangling in the wind, but a movie that prides itself on you actually needing to pay attention is rewarding in and of itself, even if it’s a little messier than it hopes.
Spiritwalker’s got a big, broad concept, but one that dips its toe into symbolic matters of infiltration—of spies in the midst and of rats in the works—and of the dissonance that arises when our identities shift at a rate outpacing our place in society. There’re some flourishes with modern technology, like dashcam memory cards, that tie our surveillance state to the larger existential terror of physically making our way through a world; there are also old-school moments of physicality, like a car slowly submerging into a lake or of Ian getting stuck in a guy with a bum leg, that reinforce the drama of a mind being trapped in a fleshy prison. Spiritwalker’s ambitious ideas and tightroping tone make for a flashy, engaging and thought-provoking piece of action—even if one of those thoughts might be “What the hell is going on?”
Director: Yoon Jae-keun
Writers: Yoon Jae-geun
Stars: Yoon Kye-sang, Park Yong-woo, Lim Ji-yeon
Release Date: April 12, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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