Director: Yoon Jae-geun
Notable Cast: Yoon Kye-sang Park Yong-woo, Lim Ji-yeon, Yoo Seung-mok, Park Ji-hwan, Lee Sung-wook, Hong Gi-jun, Seo Hyun-woo, Ju Jin-mo
Although it may often be known as the Freaky Friday premise due to the popularity of that film - and its various remakes, the idea of body swapping is a fairly familiar trope within cinema for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes, as in the case of the newer Jumanji films as an example, it’s ripe for comedy to see people of a particular physical appearance play completely against type for comedic effect. In the case of Freaky, it’s the final girl and the slasher killer that swap bodies. Horror comedy ensues. Further proof that it’s a concept that continues to work decade after decade.
Now, what if it was an action thriller that used that body-swapping concept? And not in the way that Face/Off swapped faces, but what if the “soul” of a person was forcibly placed into another body? Would that still work? These are the questions being asked by Spiritwalker, the latest film to cross over the ocean from South Korea to the United States. In this iteration, there’s a few more rules to the entire event and almost no comedy to be derived. Instead, the film focuses on how disjointed that experience would be and how it could both enhance and deter a quest for revenge.
Feel free to walk this way, Spiritwalker.
Now, the story of Spiritwalker features a man who hops bodies every 12 hours and he needs to solve his own potential murder to figure out who is still trying to kill him, even though he’s in another person’s body. It’s a science-fiction style of an idea presented in the most John Wick-ian manner possible.
Yes, the concept is gimmicky and yes, it is a bit hard to even explain in the film - although Spiritwalker does its damned finest to try and give legitimate reasoning to the entire ordeal in the third act. However, who cares? There is a sense of mystery in its first two acts though that is so provocative in its unveiling that, even when the reveal happens and it’s a s.t.r.e.t.c.h., the film had already built enough momentum that it couldn't quite possibly derail the entertainment.
That’s because, like so many South Korean action flicks and thrillers, the execution of the film is top-notch material. Director Yoon Jae-geun, although mostly known as a writer rather than a director, ably balances a lot of different tonalities and elements throughout. The core of the film is in the action thriller realm, a hitman on the run who is gunning for revenge ala the previously mentioned John Wick or (more aptly) an 80s Hong Kong gun-fu flick, and it’s here that the film finds the most success. The action is crisp and impressively choreographed, featuring some tense gun fights and a finale worthy of the comparison to 80s Hong Kong Heroic Bloodshed. The final act truly escalates the entire film to a heartfelt action extravaganza with some brutal moments to punctuate its emotional release. If Spiritwalker had one purpose, it’s to deliver that revenge motif in spades.
Yet, the body-hopping mystery and gimmick do not detract from its purpose or betray the tonality of its characters. Spiritwalker features just enough of a science fiction slant to give its concept weight and reason, but it doesn’t undercut the rest. Nor do the moments of levity provided by the comedic relief of a homeless character that befriends and helps our hero. The multiple tones, while eclectic, work to drive the film forward and never feel at odds with one another.
With some solid performances to anchor it and an ensemble cast that must repeatedly shift personalities as the lead character body hops throughout the film to relative success, Spiritwalker has just an interesting enough angle that it makes the relatively blue-printed revenge formula feel refreshingly entertaining and fun. Sure, the overall story can be muddled by its gimmick, but Yoon Jae-geun handles it with relative ease and delivers a grounded hyper-reality that packs all the right punches with both action and idea.