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Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum
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by Jay Seaver

"A 'Blair Witch' for the streaming era."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Before anything else, "Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum" is a good horror movie, one that gets the audience to jump at the right times and does a fair job of creeping them out in between. It also arguably represents the evolution of a certain part of the genre, either a transitional step between found-footage movies like "The Blair Witch Project" and screenshot entries like "Unfriended" or an impressive job in cross-breeding the two. It's a good enough haunted-house movie that the format never feels like a cheap gimmick.

That format is a live horror webcast hosted by Ha-joon, where a few of his collaborators along with some randomly selected fans will spend the night inside Gwangju's Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital - closed for twenty years, infamous for a 1979 mass suicide during which the director disappeared, and rumored to have been a site where prisoners (both political and North Korean) were tortured. Nobody, it is said, has been room 402 on the top floor since it was shuttered. The group heading out there includes site regulars Je-yoon and Seung-wook, along with nursing student Ah-yeon, major fan Ji-hyun, Korean-American Charlotte (who has been visiting haunted sites while part of a touring dance crew), and Sung-hoon. They're well-equipped with plenty of maps, cameras, and flashlights, but sometimes even the smallest things can freak you out - and some things don't seem so small.

Once upon a time, something like Gonjiam might have been trying to fool an audience into thinking it was real, or at least been standing back in half-convincing mock surprise that one would accuse the filmmakers who cast unknowns playing eponymous characters in a movie shot on consumer video equipment of that, but the audience has seen too many of those movies while the drones and 4K cameras available at any electronics store are good enough to blur the line between amateurs and professional, at least on the surface level. Gonjiam plays into this, both by establishing early on that this group has enough gear on hand to never really worry about missing anything and by blurring the lines between truth and fiction in different ways, notably by Ha-joon being as much showman as genuine paranormal enthusiast, with eyes on monetizing a video stream that certainly aims to be a more professional production, to the point where the characters are often making sure to create multi-camera set-ups and wear camera harnesses that also capture their faces, driving the visual language of a found-footage film back toward the more conventional.

There's something a bit knowingly prefab about the on-camera talent as well - it's a group where you can see the calculation of the even male-female split and hopes for unscripted-TV drama right on the surface, but that doesn't necessarily make them phonies in any way. The best friction comes from Oh Ah-yeon's scaredy-cat nurse and Park Sung-hoon's internet tough guy who thinks she shouldn't be there at all; it's basic opposites-attract material and please, no bets on which will be more useful when things get real, but it perks up a few between-scare moments. Neither Lee Seung-wook and Yoo Je-yoon ever benefit from that sort of pairing, but that might be a bit of the point: They're nervous but dependable supporting types compared to Park Ji-hyun's fast-talking, bird-flipping fangirl or Moon Ye-won's Charlotte, who is absolutely the girl who wears high-heeled boots and some tight leather to a haunted house if that stuff's getting streamed but is cool enough to own it without explaining that she's owning it.

That haunted house is a nifty one, gifted with just enough mythology that trying to think your way through it will only slow you down but not so much that a viewer's going to give up and say nothing matters before the end. The production crew makes it cluttered and run-down, and they get a lot of mileage out of simple but spooky stuff that can be done in-camera. Writer/director Jung Bum-sik doesn't lose much when he demonstrates that some of that is actually fake-able, and is pretty clever with how he escalates and spaces out scares: He gets a few good jumps early, but also makes the smart decision to balance doing something obviously foolish (don't ever split your party up!) with the crew at least temporarily seeming more in control. He and the editors then orchestrate the last act in impressive fashion, never losing track of everybody splitting up and running all over the asylum which the audience by now knows pretty well and making the fact that there are a bunch of cameras in play a positive rather than an inconvenience - as much as the viewer certainly sympathizes with the kids in the asylum, they also feel themselves alongside Ha-joon in the makeshift control room, frantically switching between feeds to find out what's going on amid the overwhelming, increasing chaos.

"Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum" doesn't do a lot that's new, but does it well and seems to have a better handle on updating the premise for today's live-streaming culture than many horror movies trying to do the same. It probably didn't get the theatrical release it deserved this year because Korean film distribution in North America is very star-driven and this sort of movie works best with unknowns, but it's the sort that play very well in darkened living rooms.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32425&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/12/18 19:51:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  13-Apr-2018 (NR)
  DVD: 18-Sep-2019


  N/A (M)

Directed by
  Beom-sik Jeong

Written by
  Beom-sik Jeong
  Sang-min Park

  Seung-Wook Lee
  Ye-Won Mun
  Ji-Hyun Park
  Sung-Hoon Park
  Ha-Joon Wi

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