Spiritwalker

Korea (2020) Dir. Yoon Jae-geun

Remember when Nik Kershaw sang “Wouldn’t it be good to be in your shoes, even if it was for just one day”? If this high concept Korean thriller is anything to go by, this is wishful thinking that needs to be discouraged ASAP.

A man (Yoon Kye-Sang) finds himself in an unusual position of not knowing where he is or who he is. It is clear he has been shot and somebody is after him but he can’t conjure up any more information or memories as to why. Suddenly, as he tries to piece things together he finds himself sitting in a café across the table from a women he isn’t familiar with.

Running out of the café, he notices his reflection, another face he doesn’t recognise. Whilst visiting a church the next day in another body, the man is jumped by an armed woman, Moon Jin-Ah (Yoon Kye-Sang), looking for a Kang I-an, a name that means nothing to him but is at least a starting point for him to find some answers. But the further he digs, the more he changes bodies, the messier the situation gets.

“High concept” might be an understatement for this fast paced but scruffily constructed thriller. If Spiritwalker has been a sci-fi, the central conceit of the body jumping would be easier to explain thus easier for the audience to swallow, although it probably would incur accusations of ripping off Ghost In The Shell. As it stands, it makes for a unique twist for a mystery thriller.

Yoon Jae-geun is a screenwriter turned director and this is his second feature in the big chair following 2010’s Heartbeat, a grounded thriller based around black market organ trafficking. I don’t know why it took Yoon a decade to get behind the wheel again, but here we are, and it seems his ambition to keep the audience on their toes has manifest itself in Yoon pushing the concept envelope quite a bit.

The reason for these body swaps is loosely explained late in the film, and by that I mean we have the cause as such, but not the science or rational behind it. Until then, we know this chap changes bodies every 12 hours, sometimes at a critical point, just to ramp up the drama and thrills. The man retains his own mind and personality, taking on the physical traits of his host body, causing those around him to wonder why he is acting so strange.

Initially, the changes seem random, usually occurring without the host bodies being in close proximity, but as the story unfolds, it appears there is a connection between them – Kang I-an. Who Kang is and why he is wanted forms the basis of the mystery for our amnesiac protagonist, whilst the audience has to work twice as hard to figure out the other pieces of the story.

Kang is being pursued by some nasty people, criminals up to their eyeballs in hedonistic life styles and violent control of their destinies – except some of them also appear to be member of a special task force. At least I think they are – they have access to superior technology, a hi-tech operations centre, and are led by a man named Director Park (Park Yong-Woo). They may just be a very well organised and wealthy crime syndicate, this isn’t made clear to any helpful extent.

Not that it matters to much, Park and his sinister crew are there to provide opposition for our hero for the fights and car chase sequences, and obstacles in seeking answers, whilst. Prime members of the group also drag our man closer to the truth when he possesses their bodies, a clever way of allowing him to infiltrate the various layers of confidence within the ranks.

For some reason, Yoon felt this film needed some comic relief, which given the fancy of the main premise maybe isn’t such a stretch, a role filled by homeless fixer Haengryeo (Park Ji-hwan). After his second body jump, our hero meets Haengryeo in a ghetto and tells him of his body swapping woes which the beggar readily believes, thus becoming the sidekick/confidante in this tale. We can argue the necessity of the role, his credibility is another thing.

Concepts such as this working outside of sci-fi conventions are open to caveats as much as they are plot holes of which there are a few. In the case of the body jumps, there are two niggling cavils that remain unexplained – first, how it is our man seems to adapt to this phenomena with relative ease and quickness, even though he is unable to faithfully replicate the persona of the people whose bodies he has taken over.    

Which brings us to the second point, of why suspicions aren’t raised sooner about these people undergoing temporary personality changes, especially for a unit where secrecy and competency are vital qualities. Surely, someone with crucial knowledge suddenly forgetting everything, including his own name, is a huge red flag to those around him, especially unpleasant sociopath Director Park?

Quite how Yoon with his experience as a screenwriter couldn’t figure out a way to tighten up these points of order is a little disappointing, but as a director, he is more concerned with delivering the hard-boiled entertainment K-thrillers are noted for than nuance and story logic. In that regard, this remit is fulfilled with nifty car chases, violent shoot outs, and solid punch ups, all with Yoon Kye-Sang at the forefront of them all as he navigates his way through this mess under various guises for the audience’s benefit.

Examining the ins and outs of the plot proves futile as Spiritwalker has no pretension of being cerebral or profound, but does reveal itself to have its narrative heart in the right place in the end. As far as high octane, tense, action packed thrillers go, this solid if a little tangled outing ticks enough boxes to have some fun with.