After making his directorial debut with crime thriller Heartbeat (2010), director Yoon Jae-keun has finally returned to screens with his sophomore effort, the sci-fi tinged action thriller Spiritwalker.
Opening with the aftermath of a car crash we are quickly introduced to our lead character played by Yoon Kye-sang, a mysterious man who awakens with no memory of who he is and a bullet wound in his shoulder. Unclear of how this happened he checks himself out of the hospital and heads to where he thinks he lives.
Before he can even get a chance to put the pieces together he finds himself switching bodies with a complete stranger every 12 hours. Not knowing the reason this is happening he begins to put the pieces together in order to find out who he is (we later find out his name is I-an which I only mention in order to reference it during this review). During his investigation he uncovers evidence to a larger conspiracy but in order to reveal the truth he must survive multiple encounters with both agents and criminals alike.
His only help is Haengryeo (Park Ji-hwan) , a homeless man I-an met when he first awoke from his car crash. He is the only one that seems to believe him when he tells him what is happening even commenting that he could be a “spiritwalker”. There is also Moon Jin-ah (Lim Ji-yeon) who is carrying out her own private search to find I-an.
Debuting stateside on the martial arts streaming service Hi-YAH!, Spiritwalker features an enjoyable mixture of mystery and action scenes, with a pleasing mixture of hand to hand fights and John Wick (2014) style shoot outs.
However, Spiritwalker does have some problems that stop it from becoming a complete success, which is mostly to due with some issues in the script, which was written by director Yoon Jae-keun. It is clear upon viewing Spiritwalker that he is maybe a better director than he is a writer.
Even so, one thing that sets the film apart from other South Korean movies is its unique premise, with I-an switching bodies every 12 hours. This helps give the film an air of mystery and tension with the audience being none the wiser as to why this is happening or whose body I-an is going to show up in next.
The main issue with this part of the plot isn’t the mystery of why it’s happening but more in the revelation of why it’s happening. Perhaps it’s just me but the reasoning behind I-an’s predicament was underwhelming and actually had me saying out loudly, “Really?” I was certainly hoping for more. Still, it isn’t enough to derail the film with Yoon Jae-keun keeping everything moving along at such a fast pace you don’t get much time to dwell on it.
The only other issue with the script is something many action films are guilty of. The characters are thinly written.
Now the lack of background info with I-an is to be expected. His back story is deliberately kept vague, with more of his story being revealed as the film progresses. But even when the mystery is revealed we aren’t told much about I-an other than he is a good man. Well at least in comparison to his colleagues.
Yoon Kye-sang does well as our confused hero, with his sheer bewilderment shining through. I would have liked to see him and the filmmakers do more with the fact he was inhabiting the bodies of different characters, perhaps taking on some of their characteristics. This idea is somewhat shown with him taking on a limp belonging to the person whose body he has taken over. I would have liked to have seen more of this. Even so Ky-sang does a considerable job and certainly handles his action scenes with a fair amount of skill.
Some may know Yoon Kye-sang from previously forming part of the boy band g.o.d.. Personally I was only aware of Kye-sang from his villainous role in the terrific The Outlaws (2017) which saw him face off against the mighty Ma Dong-seok. Anyone impressed by his work here should certainly check it out if they haven’t done so already.
He is capably backed up by Lim Ji-yeon who is certainly tougher than the typical damsel in distress. Taking and dishing out a fair share of punishment in her search for I-an, she makes for an exciting addition to the plot. Even so her character still ends up needing to be rescued come the finale.
When it comes to the villains they range from bad to evil to completely insane. There isn’t a great deal to them in regards to character development, although all of the cast do well in their roles with Park Yong-woo being especially fun as the deranged Park who seems to be pissed off with everything and everyone around him.
Park Ji-hwan is also worthy of note, giving an endearing performance as Haengryeo who seems like I-an’s only ally. While not outwardly a hero he comes to I-an’s aid on numerous occasions throughout and is one of the more enjoyable elements of the film giving the film some much needed heart.
Yoon Jae-keun had already proven with his previous feature Heartbeat (2010) that he was capable of creating a gripping action packed thriller and he once again shows these skills with his handling of the on screen action of Spiritwalker.
As well as a number of tension-filled chase scenes, both vehicular and on foot, Jae-keun includes a series of painful looking fight scenes courtesy of action choreographers Park Young-sik and Chung Seong-Ho. The two of them recently won the award for best action ensemble at the SAG awards for their work on the smash hit Squid Game (2021).
Park Young-sik had previously worked under Jae-keun on the earlier Heartbeat (2010) but his work here, along with fellow action choreographer Chung Seong-Ho, is even better. For another great example of Young-sik’s work, martial arts fans should check out the horror actioner The Divine Fury (2019).
Yoon Jae-keun paces the film well throughout with the action coming mostly in short bursts until the final blood strewn shootout where Kye-sang takes on all comers in a finely choreographed bullet ballet. Although inspired by the aforementioned John Wick the finale has enough of that distinct South Korean flavour to make it a stand out.
While Spiritwalker doesn’t compare to the best of South Korean cinema, with the script slightly lacking, there is still enough to make it a worthwhile viewing experience and will especially satiate those jonesing for a quick action fix. For those unable to watch it on Hi-YAH! Will be pleased to know that it will be released digitally, on Blu Ray and DVD on April 12th from Well Go USA Entertainment.
Unsurprisingly Spiritwalker has clearly impressed the higher ups in Hollywood with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura already planning an American remake. It will be interesting to see how it fares and what gets changed in its transition to the West.
Plot: 3/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3.5/5