There's been a lull in Korean action films for some time now, so when the noir-ish Sleepwalker hit the domestic box office, it immediately claimed the top spot. The riveting, albeit flawed, body-swap puzzle is bound to keep everyone enthralled from the first baffling switch to the next, and once you chuck out your demand for hard logic out the door, you'd probably be quite pleased that you joined the bloody ride.
A bloodied man wakes up from a car crash with no recollection of who he is or what he does. As he struggles to piece measly clues together, he soon realizes that it's all in vain because he inexplicably wakes up in a different body every 12 hours. But who are these people whose bodies he is using? Why are so many gun-wielding strangers coming after him? What is he looking for? And most importantly, who was he before all of this, and how does he have the ability to enter one body after another?
If you think that the plot sounds like a febrile dream, that's because it probably was. Writer and director Yoon Jae-geun told the Korea Times that the idea for Spiritwalker came to him while he was writing a different script in the public library. He was so bored that for a moment he thought he would have more fun if he was in someone else's body doing far more exciting things. As he shifted to explore this fantasy, he didn't just settle for an ordinary body switch. Instead, he made the hero swap bodies SEVEN times.
Body swap stories are quite common in Korean cinema (Miss Granny, The Beauty Inside) and in k-drama (Oh My Ghost, Mr. Queen to name a few) but using it to relentlessly drive an action flick is a breath of fresh air that the tired action genre desperately needs.
Yoon Kye-sang as the protagonist Kang I-an flexes his action and drama chops by playing the hero who enters seven—yes, seven—characters throughout the film. Co-star Park Yong-woo as the unhinged and ultraviolent Director Park also totally deserved that nomination for Best Supporting Actor in this year's Baeksang Art Awards for Film. But really, serious props must be given to the entire cast because it must've been so difficult to make sure that the audience never loses sight of who the good and bad guys are, even when they're in totally different bodies. It's also a testament to the director's skill (even if it's only his second feature film) that despite how fractured the first act is, he is able to bind them all together midway through the plot and make it all make sense sooner than you think. Add on some seriously great fight sequences, some impressive CG, and a high body count, and you have the makings of a truly unique flick that easily defies genre.
There isn't a boring moment in Spiritwalker—its storytelling is refreshingly brisk and its plot is far from lazy and predictable. In fact, much like Memento and the Jason Bourne films, Spiritwalker is the kind of flick that demands your total attention (and even a rewatch) because the pace is so fast that it's easy to lose sight of who is supposed to be who (and doing what). You won't be able to scroll your phone or play anything on it while watching this—and you really shouldn't—because, on top of the fractured identity crisis you need to put together, you also need to be on board for the sleek fights and the lovely gun-fu that punctuates the movie every 10 minutes or so. Despite some glaring plot holes and the implausibility of projecting one's consciousness into another body, the film still manages to be quite entertaining and enjoyable. It really is in your best interest to turn a blind eye to the gaps, and instead suspend all disbelief in order to gleefully enter the nebulous mix of "astral" projection, drugs, espionage, and even a romance.
Spiritwalker is a riveting, albeit flawed, puzzle that will keep everyone enthralled from the first baffling body swap to the next. It's the sleeper action flick no one saw coming, and once you chuck out your demands for hard logic out the door, you'd probably be pleased you joined the bloody ride.
"Spiritwalker" is available for rent on Youtube, Viki and Amazon Prime.
Other films and dramas on a similar theme:
The Beauty Inside (Film, 2015)
Based on a 2012 short social film, The Beauty Inside" tells the story of a person who wakes up in a different body every day, and the challenges he/she faces when falling in love. It's a lovely romance fueled by heady magical realism and employs an incredible cast of big Korean names. In fact, over 40 actors and actresses play the ever-changing Woo Jin, including Park Seo-joon, Yoo Yeon-sook, and Park Shin-hye. A k-drama rom-com based on the movie was also made in 2018, with Lee Min-ki, Seo Hyun-jin, and Lee Da-hee.
Forgotten (Film, 2017)
Kang Ha-neul plays Jin-seok, a man who suspects that his older brother is part of a drug gang. As his curiosity rises, so does his paranoia, but soon we see the cracks in Jin-seok's version of events. Is his brother as bad as he suspects he is? Or is Jin-seok's perception flawed from the very beginning?
Miss Granny (Film, 2014)
Hard to believe that this comedic gem was directed by the same guy who made the violent Squid Game, but let's chalk it up to Hwang Dong-hyuk's talent and range. Miss Granny is the smash body-swap hit that's so successful that it's been adapted seven times in seven other countries. In the movie, an old woman becomes her younger self again and quickly takes advantage of the chance to relive her life exactly the way she wants. Read our review here.
Dr. Brain (2021, 6 episodes)
In Apple TV's first k-drama, Hallyu heavyweight Lee Sun-kyun (Parasite) plays a genius brain surgeon who has created the technology to absorb memories from the dead. Personal tragedy drives him to use his invention on himself, leading him to live a life enmeshed among dreams, nightmares, and memories that may or may not be his.
Mr. Queen (2020, 20 episodes)
A modern-day chef falls into a pool and somehow wakes up in the body of a Joseon-era queen. So not only does he need to navigate life in a woman's body, but he also finds himself inconveniently falling for the king! Mr. Queen is a freewheeling and often hilarious exploration of gender politics and identity, set against the eternal clash between progressive sensibilities and traditional expectations. See our short review here.