Story By: James Webb
Found footage movies have gotten a bad rap. After the sub-genre was popularized by movies like The Blair Witch Project, the technique has been a favorite of horror producers because of the low cost and potential of high return, but the over saturation of the genre coupled with the relative difficulty of making one of these good cause some to approach found-footage with caution. Gonjiam: The Haunted Asylum (곤지암) is the first time this technique has been used in a Korean film and even those who aren’t fans of the technique will find a lot to like.
Gonjiam’s plot is simple and not trying to push the envelope. A guy has a horror YouTube channel and he’s trying to get a bunch of hits by live-streaming a group going into a haunted asylum. So he recruits a small group of people and straps some GoPro-style cameras to them and heads off to Gyeonggi-do to get streaming. The characters are all played by relative nobodies and they’ve got fairly stock, one-note personalities that horror genre fans would be familiar with: “tom-boy”, “sexy girl”, “shy girl”, “greedy guy who only cares about hits”, “jerk guy”, “leader guy” and “loyal guy”. If it was an American horror movie, they would have replaced the “loyal guy” with a stoner and the “leader guy” would have been a football player. It’s not exactly character driven, but that’s par for the course in this genre. Of course, they reveal that the YouTube host has actually rigged up some spooky stuff in the asylum to get hits (although this is known to only two of his collaborators), but then real spooky stuff starts to happen. The actual Gonjiam is relatively well known, but the property owners hate trespassers coming onto the premises and didn’t give permission for the movie to be shot there, so this film made up a backstory and just filmed in some unrelated abandoned building near Busan.
While that plot summary might come off as a bit negative, it actually shows how effective Gonjiam is. Even as a found footage film, a variety of kit gets used, including action cams, drones and some interesting panorama cameras that at least adds a bit of novelty to the format. In fact, some showings are using ScreenX multi-projection to take advantage of the 270 degree panorama (although these shots looks just fine on a conventional movie screen). Of course, the important element of any scary movie is the scares, and that’s where Gonjiam shines. The director, Jeong Beom-Shik previously directed the atmospheric, but somewhat flawed horror film Epitaph (기담) and he brought a lot of the same tension building techniques to this film. The scenes in the asylum move relatively slowly at first. A lot of horror films botch the atmosphere by relying on jump-scares too often and too unexpectedly. Gonjiam doesn’t slouch in the jump-scare department, but it mostly earns them. It slowly builds the atmosphere in the asylum, occasionally slamming a door or something similar to keep the audience on their toes, but not too often. Then about the time that the movie feels like it’s about to drag, the real fun starts. Once the ghosts start coming in full force, it’s intense. Nothing here for gorehounds, but the imagery is still unsettling enough to impress horror fans. For less jaded viewers, it’s pretty terrifying. During my showing, a girl a couple rows in front of me started crying, which is one of the best stamps of approval a horror movie could get. While many readers will be unable to see Gonjiam in theaters, the big screen and enthusiastic audience definitely adds to the experience.
Review courtesy of K-Movie Love. To see more film reviews, go to kmovielove.com.