Film Review – Spiritwalker
A man wakes up from a car crash with no memory of how we got there. He has no recollection of who he is or how he ended up behind the wheel. The only clues he has is a picture of a woman he does not know, and a gun shot wound. He is sent to a hospital but decides not to stick around to answer questions. Oh, and one other thing: His body is not his. Somehow, his consciousness has been transported into somebody else’s body. Not only does he have to figure out his own identity, he also must figure out the identity of the person he is occupying. Things get more complicated when he discovers that at noon and midnight every day, he gets transported into yet another body and repeats the cycle again.
The setup of the South Korean action/thriller Spiritwalker (2022) elicits many questions. If this guy doesn’t remember who he is, then how does he know he is in someone else’s body? What if he gets transported into his own body but doesn’t realize it? These are questions that writer/director Jae-geun Yoon conveniently skips over. He doesn’t focus on the intricacies of the body-swap construct because it would be futile to do so. Instead, he uses it to push his protagonist into a noirish mystery. It’s a combination of the “wrong man” and “whodunnit” storyline, with a sci-fi twist to make things interesting. The emphasis is on energy and pacing while ignoring how little any of this makes sense.
Although the “spirit” here changes bodies constantly, it’s anchored by a central character. Our amnesiac is named Ian, played by Yoon Kyesang. Throughout much of the runtime, Kyesang is shown on screen regardless of which body Ian resides in. Yoon differentiates which character he is inhabiting through changes in costume and make up. Sometimes the editing will cut between Kyesang and another actor to highlight the swap. Other times, there’ll be some clever uses of mirrors and reflections as a reminder of who Ian is at that point.
A lot of this jumping around can be fun, especially when Ian starts piecing together what is going on. However, as things progress, those pieces become less coherent. It takes some serious effort to grasp who Ian is, how each body he controls relate to one another, and the overall conspiracy that got him into this predicament. There’s a lot of fuss involving gangsters, drug dealers, hitmen, and the police, all of whom are trying to track down the “real” Ian. We learn that the woman in the picture is Jina (Ji-Yeon Lim) and she becomes a macguffin for Ian to track down, although we quickly realize she doesn’t appreciate being followed. All these elements operate simultaneously, which makes the overall story confusing. It’s as though The Matrix (1999), Memento (2000), and North by Northwest (1959) combined to make an amalgamation of overlapping parts.
Yoon structures some nifty set pieces utilizing the body swap device. The suspense ramps up any time Ian is asked a question only his host body would know. Ian has to think on his feet to get out of a jam. It’s a strange coincidence that he would find himself in life-or-death situations at noon or midnight, sometimes with him hanging on until the last second when he is transported into another body. Another contrivance involves Ian learning that he is an adept killing machine, skilled at both hand-to-hand combat and gunplay. Yoon delivers several well-rendered action scenes. A fight scene inside of an apartment shows off the martial arts choreography like an intricate dance, with each combatant kicking and punching with excellent timing and physicality. There’s also a very good car chase, with vehicles weaving in and out of traffic. The scene works because the writing, direction, and performances maintains its attention to character amid all the chaos.
This all boils toward a fantastic climax. A big issue many action films have is inserting their big scene in the middle instead of the end. The tension elevates and then drops off in the latter stages. That is not the case here. The final battle features an awe-inspiring shootout between Ian and an army of thugs. It’s a close quarter fight blending point blank gunshots and bone-breaking martial arts, reminiscent of Equilibrium (2002) or John Wick (2014). The camera follows the action with limited cuts, gliding along as Ian tumbles and dives between rooms, through walls, and around furniture to avoid a hail of gunfire. John Woo fans will appreciate the unlimited rounds of ammunition being fired – in this world nobody runs out of bullets. This is one of the better staged action scenes in recent memory – it alone is worth the price of admission.
There are certain movies that work as pure escapism, and Spiritwalker is one of them. Once we stop thinking about the craziness of the plot and the body swap mechanic, we get treated to a fun thriller with strong action. It may have a sensational tactic to pull us in but provides more beyond that. Sometimes it’s better to forget about logic and just go with the flow.