Movie Review: “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum”

   In my desire to offer diversity of flavor on Nightmare Shift, something I knew I had to do was step out of my usual preferences for what I watch. When I watch a South Korean film, I find myself seeking out the crime-thriller genre, above the rest of them. I do this because, for the most part, South Korea is home to directors like Park Chan-wookBong Joon-ho, and Kim Jee-woon, who’re all particularly capable at that. However, in order to offer myself and you a genuine scope of South Korean filmmaking, at least, to what I’m most capable of, I need to be willing to watch something I might otherwise not. Directed by Jung Bum-shik and written by Jung and Park Sang-minGonjiam: Haunted Asylum is a 2018 South Korean found footage horror film.

   This is an example of a film I would otherwise not seek out. As a matter of fact, had this film been released stateside, barring unabashed critical acclaim, I don’t think I would have touched it with a ten foot pole because of that generic “Haunted Asylum” tagline alone. It is a name that screams bargain bin bound from the get go, and yet, this film was a considerable commercial success in South Korea. The film became the third most-watched horror film in their country after A Tale of Two Sisters and Phone, for instance. 

   The film’s cast comprises itself of Wi Ha-joon, Park Ji-hyun, Oh Ah-yeon, Moon Ye-won, Park Sung-hoon, Yoo Je-yoon and Lee Seung-wook. Neither the cast nor the behind-the-scenes crewmembers have a lot of crossover with anything else I have seen, but that likely has to do more with my inexperience with the country’s cinema than anything else.

   The film begins with a man named Ha-Joon who runs a YouTube channel called Horror Times, where he discusses a psychiatric hospital called Gonjiam (a real-life hospital, by the way) and the ghost stories that spread about it over the years. In response to the stories, Ha-Joon gathers crewmembers and travels to the abandoned asylum for a live broadcast. Ha-Joon’s character is driven particularly by his desire to discover mainstream acclaim and notoriety, or to go “viral” on the internet.

   Gonjiam clocks out at around ninety-minutes, which is about par for the course for this type of a film.

   It does take a while to startup, however, with the early on scenes spent with the characters goofing around and doing a lot of vacation-like things. If you were to write a synopsis about this film, you likely would not even mention any of this footage whatsoever. This is common in a lot of found-footage films, and its purpose is logical, but is a lot of time for not a lot accomplished. It is not about developing the characters, but selling a certain cinematic theme through montaging, which is harmless, but mostly ineffective as well.

   Once they arrive at the rundown, abandoned asylum, everything starts to feel very familiar to what we have seen in prior found-footage films.

   The scares and occurrences are mostly old-school parlor tricks, like slamming doors and flickering lights. Early on, it is clear that Ha-Joon is attempting to trick the crewmembers by staging certain things in-order to bring out genuine reactions and earn more views. However, since this is a horror film, the line between what’s staged and what’s actually a paranormal entity starts to blur.

   The film is very old-fashioned and conventional in that respect. Although it does incorporate modern technology, like YouTube, it plays a lot of horror’s greatest hits, be it ones that started after the found-footage boom around the turn of the millennium or before it. I am actually curious about why South Koreans took to this film in the way they did. If the Blair Witch Project came out today, I think it would be eaten alive by moviegoers and critics alike, mostly because of how overexposed we are to its shtick by now, but prior, moviegoers were surprised and taken by the film. I am curious if South Korean audiences haven’t been beaten to death by the genre and are thereby more susceptible to its charms?

   The acting is about what is to be expected. Sometimes it is even a little hammy or overacted, but that feels largely intended, but, for the most part, the actors do about all they can do with what is offered to them. This is a film that about its concept, above all else, and thereby, does not leave a lot of wiggle room for in depth characterization.

   The cinematography and camerawork is harmless overall. I know a lot of found-footage films can become a little too cutesy, shakily rattling the camera or making it difficult to see what is happening, but Gonjiam mostly uses it to its benefit. There are even a couple ideas here and there that are simple but effective uses of the gimmick. Like, for instance, at one point, when Ha-Joon is observing some old footage and realizes every crewmember is visible in the shot, making it unclear who could possibly have recorded it. Like I said, simple, basic stuff, but effective.

   The imagery and scares at the film’s apex are mostly benign and unmemorable. I feel like they could have done more with the asylum setting, the former inmates, and the backstory they established. Like the rest of the film, shacking up at an old asylum is elementary school horror, which means I have an expectation they will add their own flavor or identity to it. Simply put though, they don’t do that.

   Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is not a bad film, per se, but it does not add anything new to the genre itself, be it the horror genre or the found-footage genre, with most of its ideas being hand-me-down’s from more inspired fare. In one respect, I almost appreciate how consistent Gonjiam is from start to finish, never breaking itself by making a real bad decision. At the same time though, I feel it is a scenario where you miss every shot you don’t take, and, in that respect, maybe being an unambitious film is worse than a film that reaches for things beyond its reach. If you are a South Korean reader (if I have any of those) and a fan of the genre, you could do a lot worse, but for readers trying to initiate themselves into South Korean filmmaking, I think you’ve likely already seen this film (and without subtitles).

   I’ll keep looking. Thanks for reading…

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