(Movie Review) 'Gonjiam,' a smart take on the horror genre

A still from "GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum"

"GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum" tells the story of seven young people teaming up to experience an abandoned psychiatric hospital designated by CNN as one of the freakiest places in the world.

The dirty, abandoned building of Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital, filled with disturbing remnants of its former life, has been a hotbed of all sorts of scary stories since its closure in 1996.

One of the most famous versions is that the hospital chief was haunted by ghosts and killed herself after the mysterious deaths of large numbers of patients at the hospital in late 1970s. Another story is that since it is the burial site of the remains of Korean independence army soldiers killed during their fight against Imperialist Japan. Yet another is that it was the site of a facility run by past authoritarian governments to torture political dissidents.

In the movie, the members of Horror Times, a fictional horror-focused YouTube channel, sneak into the building in Gwangju, a one hour drive from Seoul, to find the truth one night and share their experience of visiting the famous site via live streaming. But their ultimate goal is to earn money by garnering more than 1 million YouTube views with the video. They giggle, laugh and make fun of freaked out members after they begin shooting in the haunted building. At some point, however, their laugher turns into screams, and the team members disappear one after another.

As its director-writer Jung Bum-shik has said in media events, the movie was shot almost entirely from a first person perspective with cameras held by each actor. They also filmed their own panicked looks with cameras attached to harnesses on their shoulders.

This is where "Gonjiam" takes a different approach to the genre. It lets viewers immerse themselves completely into the exploration as they watch the team introduce major spaces of the former hospital one by one so their viewers can find ghosts.

A still from "GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum" (Yonhap)

A still from "GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum" 

The best way in which "Gonjiam" departs from the tried-and-true Korean horror format is in avoiding the drama of dead people seeking revenge for -- or the truth about -- unjust deaths. In a standard Korean horror movie, all ghosts have their own reason to return from the afterlife and attack people. Since that's not part of the equation here, the focus shifts from the process of unearthing the truth behind the horror to extreme horror itself.

The film also features no background music or sound effects, which are often used in horror movies to maximize terrifying situations. Jung, best known for "Epitaph" (2007), utilizes the weird, eerie ambience of the abandoned hospital building instead. This choice makes even the sound of a ping pong ball bouncing on the floor horrible in a certain situation.

But if you're not a big fan of horror movies, "Gonjiam" is not going to give you nightmares. You may walk out of the theater disappointed, although hopefully audiences at least take note of the film's fresh approach.

"GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum" is in theaters on March 28. It stars an all-rookie cast -- Wi Ha-joon, Park Ji-hyun, Oh Ah-yeon, Moon Ye-won, Park Seong-hoon, Lee Seung-wook and Yoo Je-yoon. You can watch a trailer for it below.



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