Horror junkies have been blessed by video on demand. Online streaming services have become a glut of horror films, as small, independent creators have been able to get their work out there for people to see. It’s been great for foreign horror flicks, as they have also been gaining prominence on streaming services, probably because they’re affordable to license. South Korea has been well-represented the last few years, with Train to Busan being the standout. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum also hails from the ROK, and fits in well with the frenetic style that has come to typify South Korean horror.
From 2018, Gonjiam was directed by Jung Bum-shik from a screenplay by Jung and Park Sang-min. It tells the story of a group on internet derring-dos who livestream a ghost investigation at an abandoned, and supposedly haunted, insane asylum. The location is real. Back in 2012, CNN Travel posted an article of “freakiest places on the planet,” and Gonjiam made the list. It was inspiration for the filmmakers, and they passed that inspiration on to their characters, as Gonjiam’s place on the list is cited more than once as a reason for the protagonists to visit. Filming was done elsewhere, but the derelict school the filmmakers used was a fine stand-in.
The group of ghost hunters numbers seven, and they are led by Ha-joon (Wi Ha-joon), a young man with dreams of internet stardom. He wants to put together a stream that will hit more than a million viewers, and bring in some ad riches for the team. The other members of the team are Ha-joon’s friends Sung-hoon and Seung-wook (Park Sung-hoon and Lee Seung-wook); somewhat creepy guy Je-yoon (Yoo Je-yoon); and three young women Ha-joon recruited, because scared chicks in a haunted asylum is better for views. They are the reserved and naïve Ah-yeon (Oh Ah-yeon), tomboyish Ji-hyun (Park Ji-hyun), and Korean-American Charlotte (Moon Ye-won).
All of the footage in the film was part of the ghost hunting team’s kit, which makes this a found footage horror flick. It’s a subgenre of horror that has been done to death this century — one that has so much mediocrity and awfulness that it makes finding a merely competent example like re-discovering Citizen Kane. That’s not all.
Well-versed horror fans will notice that this flick owes a lot to Grave Encounters, the scrappy ghost flick from The Vicious Brothers. The situation and characters are analogous, although Gonjiam skews younger. That’s okay with me. Grave Encounters took a lot of its ideas from what came before, as well. To me, stealing ideas for a movie is less important than that the fruits of that theft are worth watching. And it’s not like American films don’t farm ideas from foreign flicks, as well. It makes sense. Film, and their ideas and plots, are globalized. But the audience for foreign language films will always be less than that of native speakers, in any country. Why not take ideas that only a small percentage of the populace will have seen, and adapt them for the wider populace? That’s all Gonjiam has done.
The asylum is a dark and creepy location. It’s all water-stained hallways and trashed rooms. It’s also deceptively small. Pay close attention and one will notice that only a few rooms are used. It’s to Jung’s credit that he makes the location seem more expansive.
It doesn’t take long for the group to begin to experience supernatural phenomena, and these phenomena grow in intensity throughout the film. Denouement comes, and we see how huge of a mistake it was for the group to tempt fate. That reads like a thin description of the plot, but it’s not. There isn’t much in the way of plot. “Young people run around an abandoned asylum and get stalked by ghosts” is a fairly comprehensive description. There’s not much to connect the scenes together other than location and characters. It’s mostly little vignettes of ghost stuff. What holds the film together is the overall theme.
The performances all being in Korean, there’s not much I can say to the quality of the acting. What I can say is that they’re all a little shouty. But, hey, they’re supposed to be scared out of their minds. There are plenty of other films with panicked characters that are much less tolerable. What I did find annoying was not the characters, but the way in which they were shot. Much of the footage is taken from camera rigs the cast wear, a la MTV’s Fear. That means there are a substantial number of frames in this movie that seem dedicated to peering up the cast’s noses.
Gonjiam isn’t that frightening of a horror flick. It succeeds more in its fun house aspects than it does in making the audience pucker. And it has a hell of a pace. Sometimes ghost flicks can get bogged down in their spectral trickery, drawing things out or repeating. Not here. What does keep it from being a scary movie is its familiarity. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before. Gonjiam makes up for the lack of scares by being merely good. That’s not the worst tradeoff.