I don’t like horror films. I don’t even like horror novels. The first (and so far last) horror novel I read was Ring by Koji Suzuki, and it gave me nightmares and an irrational fear of videotapes. The first horror film I watched was one of the Child’s Play (Chucky) films and I vowed to never watch horror films again. But of course, peer pressure and an innate love of movies in general eventually led me to watch The Conjuring in high school, which only reaffirmed my dislike of the genre, even though this particular film was not your typical horror and I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum was probably only the third horror film that I have watched in my life, so this review might be very lacking for all you horror-desensitized folks. But if you are a coward like me, you might find this review to be, at the very least, interesting. With that being said, I will try my best to approach this movie without too much of my personal bias. Also, from this point on, I will assume that you have watched the film or at least have read the synopsis.
Following in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield, Gonjiam utilizes the “found footage” technique for most of the film. While I find this method to be trite and overused in movies today, the first-person reaction shots from the shoulder cameras were used very well and added to the tension and fear factor of the film. Juxtaposed with the steady third-person shots, the cinematography provided a natural immersion for viewers. Also, the noise and static in the film, which had me for a moment questioning whether or not these were technical errors with the cinema, added a layer of realism to the handheld camera work and live streaming video qualities of the film.
The “hauntedness” of the asylum was left more or less unexplained as no clear backstory was given for the ghosts’ behavior and the supernatural forces. The various rumors that circulated in the beginning are the only indicators we have for the metaphysical events in the film. I thought this was a good idea; the absence of a character and identity for the supernatural enhanced the mystery and hauntedness of the asylum itself.
The director Bum-shik Jung aimed for an extra level of realism by casting rookie actors for this film, with all of them playing their characters under their actual names, as the premise of the plot revolves around a group of YouTubers shooting footage for a horror show channel. I felt that Jung accomplished that particular goal with this film, although I couldn’t help but feel that some parts (especially in the first act) suffered from overacting and poor dialogue delivery. Fortunately, the quality of acting dramatically improved as the horror hit the road.
My personal favorite moment in the movie was the Charlotte sequence. The pacing, acting, camera work, background music (or the lack of), and the “ghost” were all planned and executed perfectly. The fact that we later find out that Charlotte, and subsequently everyone else who ventures into the asylum, ends up in room 402 was a nice touch.
The number of views on the live-streamed YouTube video is shown to have been a fabrication by the supernatural forces, which was a fun reveal at the end. But, like any film, it had many aspects that I had issues with; the build-up and pacing were too slow, the initial gathering and introduction of the main characters were quite painful and rather boring to watch, the dialogue was mediocre, and some of the jump scares weren’t scary at all. Nonetheless, the immediate build-up to the climax more than made up for some of the film’s shortcomings.
Overall, I think Gonjiam is an above-average spring horror film that successfully managed to break a few typical horror-film tropes while maintaining all the terrifying aspects of the genre. If you like horror films, I think you will be satisfied with Gonjiam. But for me, I think I’ll stick with the works of Wes Anderson, Martin McDonagh, David Fincher, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Denis Villeneuve, Sang-ho Yeon, Chan-wook Park, Joon-ho Bong, etc. The cathartic, perhaps slightly masochistic, pleasure derived from watching horror films is unfortunately beyond my understanding. Yet, the international, as well as domestic, attraction towards K-horror films is undeniable and I think that Gonjiam does the industry justice.