Studio: Well Go USA
Director: Beom-sik Jeong
Writer: Beom-sik Jeong, Sang-min Park
Producer: Won-kuk Kim
Stars: Ha-Joon Wi, Sung-Hoon Park, Seung-Wook Lee, Ji-Hyun Park, Ye-Won Mun, Ah-Yeon Oh, Je-Yoon Yoo
The host of an online ghost hunting series recruits six people to investigate a reportedly haunted Korean asylum.
While “Black Panther” was breaking U.S. records by becoming the third highest grossing film of all time only two months into release, a much different movie was making box office news half a world away. In head-to-head competition against “Ready Player One,” South Korea’s “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” bested Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster for a second consecutive April weekend, after having accounted for 40% of its home country’s total theater ticket sales during the prior week.
Regardless of region, overthrowing a Hollywood juggernaut is an impressive feat for a homegrown “found footage” film. The jaded horror junkie in me still wants to hack out a cheap joke. Basically something about Korean moviegoers apparently not having as much nostalgia for a time travel trip through Western pop culture as they do for the tired trope of amateur ghost hunters urban exploring an abandoned building.
In all likelihood, the joke might be on me. I don’t have nearly enough insight into Korean tastes or trends to grasp why a film that would go straight to video in North America would put butts in seats en masse overseas. Point of origin undoubtedly plays a part. Speculation also posits that unlike other audiences, maybe the Asian horror market hasn’t burned out on overexposure to “The Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity,” and their uncountable army of imitators incorporating passé premises.
That benefit of the doubt does not extend to “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” co-writer Sang-min Park or director Beom-sik Jeong. As their movie proves, they are unmistakably familiar with the above films and their offspring, because “Gonjiam” is a virtual ‘Greatest Hits,’ or ‘Worst of’ depending on perspective, featuring every cliché “found footage” has to offer.
On plot summary alone, which boils down to a webseries host assembling six people to explore an infamous abandoned building, “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” would have been an easy pass. The ‘paranormal hospital’ subgenre of “found footage” peaked in 2011 with “Grave Encounters” (review here) and has steadily strode away from that summit with every effort since, including, but certainly not limited to “The Crying Dead,” “Greystone Park,” “Reel Evil,” “Sanatorium,” “The Speak,” “SX_Tape,” even “Grave Encounters 2.”
But ballyhoo led me to reason that “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” must have something special on hand to warrant its boffo box office returns. An inventive Dr. Frankenstein had seemingly found a way to juice new life into the first-person format’s dead flesh, and it took the uniqueness of Korean culture and a fresh-eyed filmmaker to make it happen.
Sadly, none of these assumptions bore fruit. “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” stamps itself from the same bland boilerplate as every other flick with this subtitle at its story’s center. I’m at a loss to guess what brought success to “Gonjiam,” other than the idea that Korea must not be as inundated with as many of these movies as other countries, not to mention the lure of its local “true events” connection. I’m at just as much of a loss in coming up with a reason why I would recommend this movie over any of the umpteen clones that have already come before.
Looking for light in a disappointingly dark tunnel, I can applaud “Gonjiam” for not being as slapdash as its microbudget American counterparts. The film employs multiple prosumer cameras (although face-pointed GoPro rigs jam close-ups into everyone’s nostrils) and makes earnest attempts at developing unique characters (although watching the septet throw cherry tomatoes into each other’s mouths isn’t overly endearing). By and large, “Gonjiam: puts on a more cinematically polished show than your usual ‘point and shoot’ affair thrown cheaply together with an iPhone, improvisation, and a handful of amateur actors.
Alas, stale staging keeps “Gonjiam” from creating effective atmosphere. Suddenly slamming doors, jingling bells on strings, and a candle blowing itself out aren’t scary setups to begin with. Then the movie “reveals” a plain sight secret that the supernatural activity seen thus far isn’t entirely authentic. Now the audience becomes trapped in a ‘time out’ waiting for the inevitable moment when “real” ghosts finally come out to play.
Several cinematic subgenres are ripe for debate over how much content can be wrung from dry cloths. Cases can nevertheless be made that there are still creative twists to be put on slashers, spy thrillers, killer dolls, or what have you. Unfortunately, watching “Gonjiam” labor through unoriginal scenes of empty wheelchairs rolling down dark hallways, flashlight beams sweeping over discarded dolls, someone explaining what an EMF meter is, and green-tinted night vision forces me to conclude that nothing can refill the “found footage” well for supernatural buildings at this point. Certainly not “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum.”
Review Score: 40