Korean Movie Review: Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

Sunday, October 28, 2018


Found footage horror has enjoyed its fair share of success in the English-speaking world, with the origins of the subgenre dating back to at least 1980. Low-budget hits like The Blair Witch Project, which tricked viewers into believing the content was real, and the unexpectedly profitable Paranormal Activity franchise have since popularized it to an almost ridiculous extent. Surprisingly, however, found footage has not been as widespread in Asian horror, much less so in Korean cinema. In fact, Jung Bum Shik's foray into the genre with Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) may just be the first South-Korean found footage film yet.

Starring a largely unknown cast, Gonjiam begins with the familiar premise of a film crew investigating a spooky location, hoping to catch its rumoured secrets on tape. The crew is led by Ha Joon (Wi Ha Joon), the host of a horror-themed internet show, who takes his two camera guys Sung Hoon (Park Sung Hoon) and Seung Wook (Lee Seung Wook) and four other similarly-minded enthusiasts Ji Hyun (Park Ji Hyun), Ah Yeon (Oh Ah Yeon), Charlotte (Moon Ye Won) and Je Yoon (Yoo Je Yoon) to Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital* after two young thrill-seekers went missing on the premises. 

Gonjiam takes its time to get to the spooks and scares as characters spend the first 15 minutes of the film getting to know each other as they prepare for the trip and then another 30 at the scene setting up the live broadcast and exploring the asylum with some mighty impressive camera equipment. It isn't until about midway into the movie that some unnerving stuff finally starts happening, though we are quickly revealed that Ha Joon and his two buddies are behind the scares in order to boost views on their broadcast, with the rest of the crew unaware of the fact.

All is fun and games, until the gang tries to open the door to Room 402, which is rumored to have never been opened, and actual ghostly activity begins. Sung Hoon and Seung Wook realize that the spirits are real and want to leave with the others but Ha Joon, who's back at base camp directing the operation, urges them to continue even after experiencing some unexplained occurrences himself. There is one creepy scene where Ha Joon reviews footage of all six members of the crew in one shot and realizes that none of them filmed it. Still, he is fixated on reaching a million views on his broadcast and decides to enter the building himself. From then on, the ghosts get violent and, one by one, the separated crew members meet their horrific ends in the dark corridors of the asylum. 

The film ends somewhat ironically with a shot of the computer screen after the live broadcast has ended, showing the viewers disappointingly deciding that it was a hoax after all. It is a fairly true reflection of general apathy and skepticism of modern internet users who are so desensitized to disturbing imagery that even the most convincing proof of paranormal would be in no time dubbed fake.

Overall, Gonjiam doesn't take too many risks and borrows quite a bit from the Canadian film Grave Encounters, even reusing some tricks from The Blair Witch Project. It is, however, a relatively smooth production that knows atmosphere comes first. Unlike most of the Hollywood horror flicks today, Gonjiam doesn't rely on painfully loud musical cues to make the audience jump (often with no pay-off). Here, the hauntings take time to intensify, with the movie first introducing us to the eerie location, then letting small things like ominous graffiti and mysterious findings hint at ghostly activity, and finally throwing in bigger scares as the film reaches its culmination. It's a slow but a carefully thought out progression that most horror fans should be able to appreciate.

So while the film won't be able to compete with the staggering amount of similar horror titles that have come before it, it is a decently creepy viewing. The young and inexperienced cast performs better than expected and technical aspects of the film are executed well enough to make you buy into the found footage premise. Rather than getting heart rates up with numerous jumpscares, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum lets darkness and shadows stir our imaginations instead, earning itself a safe little spot in "K-horror" to represent a genre rather unfamiliar to Korean audiences.

Rating: B-

*Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital did exist and has been called one of the most haunted places in South-Korea. According to legend, it was shut down after many of its patients and staff mysteriously began dying, though most likely the hospital closed due to unsanitary conditions and economic reasons. Although closed to the public, the premises were often broken into by tourists and so-called ghost hunters seeking thrills. It was demolished in May 30, 2018.

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