Back in 1992, all of the UK was scandalised by a strangely realistic “drama” starring three well respected TV personalities “investigating” poltergeist activity in an ordinary house. Screened as part of an ongoing anthology drama series, the show was presented as if it were live complete with a telephone number for viewers to ring in. Many were tricked into believing the events they were witnessing were “real” and that a genial children’s TV presenter they knew and loved had been dragged off by a malevolent supernatural entity. Fast forward 10 years and the nation was once again gripped by a “live” ghost hunting show presented by a dubious psychic and a (former) children’s television presenter but this time at least keeping up a pretence of “reality” even if the show’s appeal lay more in its exaggerated seriousness than it did a genuine interest in the paranormal.
The world may have been a more innocent place back in 1992, but ghost shows are still big business even in this comparatively more cynical age. Reality TV ghosthunters Horror Times decide the best way to pick up their flagging views is to go viral by going live inside a notorious disused sanatorium listed as one of CNN’s seven freakiest places on Earth. Rumour has it that Gonjiam Mental Hospital (a place all too real though here given a fictionalised history) was built by the Japanese over the top of a mass grave for resistance fighters though, according to our guides, it was also accounted one of the best psychiatric facilities in the country. Its director received numerous awards from the government of Park Chung-hee (which ought to tell you she was probably up to no good), but the hospital fell into disrepute after an incident in which all the patients mysteriously died and the director herself “disappeared”. Ever since then teenagers have been breaking in to try their luck, but anyone who’s tried to open the door to room 402 has met a sticky end.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Gonjiam) is a found footage horror movie in the modern mould and like most, the crime our “heroes” are about to commit is one of extreme hubris. Cynical in the extreme, the Horror Times crew have absolute certainty in the non-existence of the supernatural and actively mock it through their exploitation of engineered “scares”. In an odd way, if you really thought about it, Horror Times would be quite an exploitative show if it involved “real” ghosts – perhaps you should let malevolent spirits lie rather than bullying them to fight you for the entertainment of others. Nevertheless, the Horror Times crew are about to find out just how wrong they are. While they bicker amongst themselves, hatching plans to wind up the most “expressive” of the team members, setting up bizarre “rituals”, and faking being “scared” to get more money, the Captain keeps a firm eye on the numbers from the safety of the editing tent and the horrors of Gonjiam begin to bubble quietly below the surface.
The thing is, there is clearly horror in spades in this version of Gonjiam where we are told the directoress excelled at treating not only the “distressed” but also “political prisoners”. The lab holds its share of bizarre discoveries including some kind of weird chicken in preserving fluid while the “collective treatment room” is filled with individual confessional boxes which are completely closed save one opening at the chest level. The spectres we later see have large scars running down their torsos and we can only image the true horror of whatever it was that was done here and to whom and on what grounds, but Horror Times aren’t interested in any of that despite their rather superficial “investigations” of the directoress’ office and her many photos of that time she got a prize off a dictator. By the time everyone starts speaking in tongues and getting trapped in strange underwater realms, it becomes clear the “truth” is going to remain buried.
Maybe the other lesson the Horror Times guys should have learned is that the traumatic past is not your playground and it’s probably fair enough if those unable to pass on begin to feel upset about their personal pain being exploited for ghoulish thrills. Perhaps there’s a mild lesson in the unhappy fates of those who’d rather poke the ghosts than cure them, revelling in the darkness of another era rather than trying to expose it, but Gonjiam isn’t so much about lessons as good old fashioned scares. The abandoned hospital itself is atmospheric, as are the distant banging and doors opening of their own accord but there’s a glibness in its unease that undercuts the sense of dread and inevitability so essential to the genre. The biggest irony of all is that Horror Times’ viewers lost interest when the “real” ghosts showed up – reality TV never really was about “reality” anyway.
Screened as a teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next and final teaser screening will be A Tiger in Winter on 17th September at Regent Street Cinema at which the full programme for this year’s festival will be revealed.
International trailer (English subtitles)
For the curious, a clip from Ghostwatch (1992)