By: John M Jerva
Asian action cinema has assuredly been hit or miss as of late as the one-time genre out of the East could seemingly do no wrong. Current political climate changes have severely hampered film product (yeah, I’m talking to you China) coming out of that area but it’s not to say that there aren’t some gems that are still being released to satisfy the masses. South Korea has given us some gloriously high-octane output throughout the years and during the 2010’s, they probably dished out some of the best action-thrillers out there with titles like The Man from Nowhere and No Tears for the Dead. The former is without a doubt one of my favorites and the finale is a blistering execution of knife fighting choreography that is unrivaled.
This brings us to the subject of this review which is Well Go USA’s newest action offering Spiritwalker which hails from director Yoon Jae-keun (Heartbeat) who actually hasn’t put out a movie for over a decade. His latest creation sees a movie that cleverly combines supernatural body swapping elements with stone-cold, hard-hitting action in the vein of John Wick (yes, I’m comparing this film to that great franchise but it’s hard not to seeing that it pays definite homage to those series of films). What we have here is a film that is rather complex, but it never gets too confusing, and it is a good movie that’ll keep you guessing as to what is really going on.
At the heart of the story is former K-pop singer Yoon Kye-Sang (Chocolate, The Outlaws) who is playing a man who wakes up injured after a bad car crash and to add insult to injury, he’s also been shot, and he has no memory of what has happened or who he is. To make matters even worse, when he looks into a reflective surface, he sees someone else’s face looking back at him. What transpires is a 100 plus minute exercise into the mind of a man who must figure out why every twelve hours his soul is transferred into another host’s body. Let’s not forget the hordes of professional killers that are after him and the bullets, fists and feet he has to keep dodging.
The plot is something that I will keep vague for this review as I would not want to spoil any of the fun to be had watching the film and trying to put the puzzle pieces together. Body swapping has been done a great deal in movies and normally it is reserved to comedies, but some filmmakers have broken from the norm and made this plot device work in horror films like Denzel Washington’s cleverly executed Fallen. Not many action films have tried this plot point so that is why Spiritwalker is inviting for genre fans that are looking for something a little different.
In the lead role of Ian, Yoon Kye-Sang does an admirable job convincing us that he is someone that hasn’t a clue what has happened in the last day or so and even though he lacks a little charisma, which is funny for someone who is a pop singer, he still navigates the proceedings well enough for us to care and to find out what is going on. Yoon handles the action sequences well and I would be pressed to mention that I would have thought that he was doing this sort of thing for years. Having the protagonist be played by someone I was unfamiliar with worked in the sense that if they chose a more recognizable star, I feel that the movie wouldn’t have worked as well as it did.
Amidst all the supernatural voodoo and balletic action going on, Spiritwalker is essentially a love story as Ian is not only trying to discover what mystery is surrounding him, but he is also trying to save Jina (Ji-Yeon Lim) from the nefarious forces afoot and this layer to the plot serves up the more sympathetic aspect of Ian. It is also refreshing that Jina is not a damsel in distress as she offers up some physical moments of her own to compliment her co-star.
The plot device of Ian swapping bodies every twelve hours at noon and midnight evokes a tense and taut feeling to the movie and it offers a hectic situational awareness as you’re rooting for Ian to uncover something before the clock strikes. This could have delved into a cliched counterpoint but director Yoon Jae-keun handles it well and evokes a tension coiled feel to the proceedings. Yoon also has a real eye for visual flair and the movie is layered with striking visuals to go along with the plot and action.
There are some major pacing issues however as the film clocks in at 108 minutes and to that aspect, I felt it did overstay its welcome and if ten minutes or so were shaved off, it would have kept the pacing tighter and solved the lags in the narrative. Just as something heats up, the breaks are applied, and minutes go by before something exhilarating happens again. I’m not saying that the film had to be wall to wall action, but I am saying that the downtime could have been spent a little bit better for the price of admission. Thankfully, this movie was under two hours as it seems these days that most films have to test your bladder before the credits roll. Kudos for the filmmakers on winning that one.
There is enough action set pieces to be had and they are peppered throughout with each building to the inevitable climax. martial arts choreographers Park Young-sik and Chung Seong-Ho (SAG Awards, Best Stunt Ensemble, Squid Game) were responsible for all the carnage and violence onscreen, and they are a duo that I will gladly say that I want to see more of in future films. We get a few shootouts and hand to hand action to offset one another and one scene is clearly a standout as Ian takes on two assailants in an apartment. The action is handled well with solid camera angles and edits, and it is aided by Ian constantly shifting from himself to the body he is inhabiting without the use of CGI. It’s done rather well, and it punctuates the action going on at the same time. It’s a punchy brawl with lightning fisted choreography that reminds me of the altercation in the Bourne Identity but here the editing wins the audience over.
The finale is well worth the wait as Ian finally comes face to face with the enemy and here, we are treated to a guns blazing display of Gun Fu and bullet riddled ferocity that almost rivals something out of one of the John Wick movies. I know it’s almost cliche itself to compare any future movies to that blockbuster franchise but when it is merited I will do just that. It’s clear that our esteemed fight choreographers were going for this look and it’s executed quite well with bloodshed galore and bodies dropping left and right. Yoon Kye-Sang does his best to emulate Keanu Reeves with his Jiu-Jitsu laced countermoves here and the only drawback is the scene is cut rather short just as it was getting good. The balletic violence on hand is nice and it would have benefitted from a slightly extended scene.
Overall, Spiritwalker cleverly combines the supernatural body swapping elements with John Wick style violence for a film that does Korean action cinema proud. It does suffer from an unnecessary long running time and pacing issues, but the characters and well-crafted fight action keep the audience invested. The plot is handled a little ambiguously with an ending that really leaves it open for interpretation, but I feel that it sort of serves the plot well as viewers can decide for themselves what truly happens. The film is visually striking, and the cinematography adds to the aesthetics, and I do hear rumblings that Hollywood. like it always does, wants to remake this movie for western audiences. Hopefully they will take the things that work and the things that don’t into consideration as if done right, it could compliment this movie. It’s not action packed but the set pieces that are on display help punctuate the story leading up to the bullet filled finale and this movie rivals a lot of Hollywood’s outgoing product.