Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I took a lot of flack on some Star Trek message boards (ask your parents, kids) when I pointed out some of the fan favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation were a bit pale in my eyes. Why? They relied a bit too heavily on plot devices.
Need an example?
Well, folks back then just raved over the hours involving the character of Q (played by the fabulous John De Lancie); and I scoffed at those tales. If the writers had to resort to such an obvious and magical plot device – such as an omnipotent being – then where’s the authenticity of the characters, the circumstances, and the situation? When it can all be changed back to the way it was with the snap of Q’s fingers, that cheapened any sacrifice or revelation as written. (This wasn’t always the case, and I loved Q’s role and how the writers used him in ‘Tapestry.’ And I always loved De Lancie’s work!) But magically rendered happenstance didn’t quite have a place in the Science Fiction show; and I thought this recurring device weakened the show’s drama.
Well, I’d like to think I’m a bit wiser now (I’m certainly a bit older), and I can certainly appreciate why so many people took umbrage with my position. Mind you: I still have it, but I don’t dwell on things like that all that much these days … unless I must.
With Spiritwalker (2020), I feel the need to dip back into those waters – albeit briefly. Without question, this story couldn’t be told the way it is without its central plot device. I’d argue that it could be told differently – of that I’ve no doubt – but when the fulcrum behind any motion picture requires such a huge suspension of disbelief in order to propel the narrative, there are always going to be risks. Calculated risks. Perhaps risks too big to take.
Were they worth taking?
I know what I think of it, but that’s really up to you to decide. Consider it a reasonable case of ‘buyer beware.’
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“A fantasy action film that revolves around a man who loses his memory and subsequently wakes up in a new body every twelve hours.”
Besides the aforementioned Star Trek: The Next Generation, another truly great television series to come out of the 1980’s and 1990’s Quantum Leap. Starring Scott Bakula, the show featured a scientist who spent his days traveling through time. On a weekly basis, Dr. Sam Beckett would ‘inhabit’ the body of another person for the sole purpose of putting something right that had somehow gone wrong in the timeline. (Never mind just how anything went awry to begin with, just accept that it did; otherwise, the whole premise fell apart.) While in that person’s body, the audience would see Bakula’s face, but those around him would see the original person.
Essentially, writer/director Jae-geun Yoon lifts this fantastical idea, shortens the life span, and ratchets up the action in this curious yet thrilling adventure: Yoon Kyesang stars as Kang I-an, a man who wakes up every twelve hours in a different person’s body with no explanation for how or why he’s doing this. While the element of time travel is gone entirely, as Kang keeps ‘leaping’ it becomes increasingly clear that these different people are, in fact, connected both to him and the deepening mystery that may or may not involve elements of a shady Korean intelligence agency, a vast yet unnamed drug cartel, and the dirtiest cops on the face of the planet.
Plot devices – by themselves – are not a bad thing: what truly matters – so far as any audience should care – is how well they’re used. This doesn’t mean just establishing whether or not they’re an effective means to move a story forward; it also requires that what’s captured on film uniquely amplifies why the device is best used in the manner in which it is. To his credit, Jae-geun Yoon gets some good mileage out of the first two body swaps, but the technique becomes less and less impressive as Spiritwalker’s secrets are peeled away. There is a surprise here and there still to come right up until that last fateful leap, but by then it’s a procedure pretty easy to predict in this ninety-five-minute feature, robbing this final twist of any real impact.
Setting the contrivance aside, I’m still not entirely certain what Spiritwalker wanted to be.
Clearly, there’s an action picture in here – one that feels similar to much of what’s come before from South Korea, complete with car crashes, foot chases, and gun-fu. The film’s last reel is an impressive array of efficient, violent choreography not unlike the John Wick films, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a little too much a little too late in the build-up toward a conclusion. However, the script also dabbles with bad cops, crooked intelligence agencies, and maybe even a state-sponsored drug cartel (sorry, but I found it all a bit vague, maybe lost in translation). Including these components didn’t feel nearly as organic as main story; and as they’re never really commented upon, dissected, nor declared good or bad, I found the end result an uneven mix of ideas and genres. Dare I say that Jae-geun may have bitten off not so much more than he could chew but more than an audience needs to chew on in so short a season?
Also – and I realize well in advance that this might trigger some of you reading this – I’ll admit that I had some problem telling these characters apart on the screen.
Though a bit underdone and perhaps saddled with villains needing more purpose, there’s still plenty to enjoy in the film.
In fact, there’s an early sequence wherein our hero finds himself slipping from one identity to another while awake. The supporting camera trickery – a dark and largely nondescript apartment slowly morphs into a posh, heavily populated restaurant – is downright brilliant. It’s part ‘bullet time’ and part clever dissolve but all of it visually captures the insane psychological disassociation Kang I-an is experiencing over and over and over again on this journey to uncover who he is and why he’s suddenly leaping. I imagine filmmakers around the world will be trying to tap into that aesthetic in the years ahead. It’s a groundbreaking sequence alone, and it deserves to be discovered.
Spiritwalker (2020) was produced by B.A. Entertainment and Saram Entertainment. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being handled by the very reliable Well Go USA Entertainment. As for the technical specifications? The movie looks and sounds fabulous from start-to-finish. As for the special features? Meh. There’s a three-minute-ish ‘making of’ that really works more like a bloated theatrical trailer than it does anything else; considering that there already were two other trailers provided, I’m not sure what good this little extra does. I guess it’s nice to have something, no?
Though Spiritwalker doesn’t quite deliver a useful explanation of its world until the midpoint, the flick manages to elevate a few key performances in order for viewers to relate to the action. The first half’s comic relief was crafted brilliantly to support the complex plot while actually retaining humor, something lesser films rarely get right. Those who are patient are rewarded … so long as they’re comfortable waiting for all to be revealed. Even after that seminal flashback memory dump (which tries really hard to deliver all goods), director Yoon keeps plugging in a few twists and turns to keep the action fresh – some good, some not – though I’ll admit those late-breaking tricks weren’t nearly as effective on screen as they perhaps were in the script.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Spiritwalker (2020) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.