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[Herald Review] Navigating the dark corners of a haunted asylum

“Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” is typical found-footage horror film, but tells a legitimately scary story

Editors of CNN were right on the money when they introduced Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital by saying, “The story of this abandoned psychiatric hospital reads like a textbook plot of a horror film.”

Directed by Jung Bum-shik, a masterful horror director who made “Epitaph,” the movie “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” follows seven people who meet up via a YouTube project to explore what is supposed to be the most haunted place in Korea.

A scene from “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” (Showbox)
A scene from “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” (Showbox)

Ha-jun, who runs a YouTube channel that deals with the supernatural, leads the team of youngsters to the Gonjiam asylum and the mysterious room 402, which is supposed to have never been opened since the hospital closed decades before.

Despite the rumors that the place is cursed, Ha-jun and his team strap on cameras and plunge into the darkness surrounding the battered building.

The movie has a clear goal, to suck the audience into the “reality” of the film to make them feel like they are really there.

A scene from “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” (Showbox)
A scene from “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” (Showbox)

None of the cast is an established actor, with most of them making their first appearance on the silver screen. They even use their real names, except Moon Ye-won, who uses her English name Charlotte.

This was a deliberate choice to make it seem more like the audience is actually watching footage shot and streamed online by the seven adventurers -- and most of it actually was shot by the actors playing them. The lack of sound effects and music add to the naturalistic effect.

The blur between fiction and reality works well, but the problem is that it has been done before, and done well, several times since “The Blair Witch Project” popularized it in 1999.

As the pioneer in the genre, “Blair Witch” had the potential to trick the audience to thinking it might be real. But this is 2018, and the found-footage, fake documentary approach is no longer fresh, nor is it as effective as it was.

Despite this, the movie does a good job of getting into your head. From the awkward interactions between those who just met, the vanity of internet fame, and greed and obsession the characters accurately depicted familiar qualities.

Sometimes the actors go over the top, but the characters are appearing in a live-streamed internet show, and wannabe stars do tend to get a little weird in front of a camera.

Overall, the film still does a good job of making you believe that you are actually there in the dark asylum. The third act is drawn out, to the extent that it feels like it’s too much, but it’s still effective.

A lot of the horror is in the unknown, which is a double-edged sword: The audience is are encouraged to imagine their own demons, but this can mean that the film’s actual horrors are less scary once they are shown.

The film is based on an urban legend, and since the horror element of the film hinges on the audience being pulled into the plot, I wouldn’t recommend looking up the rumors surrounding the hospital.

Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital is private property, which means trespassers can be punished by law. Villagers of Gonjiam have also filed numerous complaints over noise made by visitors.

The owner of the asylum recently filed a lawsuit against the film being shown in theaters, claiming that the film will have negative effects on selling the building, but a Seoul court on Wednesday ruled in favor of the movie being shown.

In any case, it is probably wise not to mimic the movie’s protagonists. Who knows? Maybe there is something lurking in the shadows, after all.

“Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” opens in local theaters on March 28.

By Yoon Min-sik