By Areum Jeong.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, South Korea’s first found-footage horror film, directed by Bum-shik Jung, is a low-budget film that scored at the box-office and was a hit with critics. It was the first attempt in South Korea at combining the found-footage technique with the setting of YouTube live streaming. The film opens with two high school boys who go missing after exploring the abandoned Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital. After seeing the news, Ha-joon, a popular YouTuber of the channel Horror Times, recruits six volunteers – Ah-yeon, Charlotte, Je-yoon, Ji-hyun, Seung-wook, and Sung-hoon – to visit the hospital. Fully equipped with go-pros, they set up a base camp in the mountains near the hospital and wait until midnight. Numerous moviegoers posted anecdotes and photos on their social media accounts not only about the film, but also of frightened members of the audience fleeing the theatre or spilling their popcorn during screenings.
Gonjiam’s success was not a fluke – Jung had been making horror films since 2007. His first film, Epitaph, co-directed with his cousin Shik Jung, was hailed as one of the most beautiful horror films in Korean cinema. Set during the Japanese colonial rule, Epitaph consists of three mysterious events that take place at Ansaeng Hospital. It was screened internationally and received several awards, including Best New Director from the 2007 Blue Dragon Film Awards, 2007 Director’s Cut Awards, 2007 Korean Association of Film Critics Award, and the 2008 Baeksang Arts Awards. Between Epitaph and Gonjiam, he made short horror films such as A Fairy Tale of the Sun and the Moon (2012) and Escape (2013).
On August 27, 2018, I interviewed Jung to discuss Gonjiam, filmmaking in South Korea, and Unpa Films, Korea’s first horror film label which he recently founded. The interview was conducted in Korean.
What was the inspiration for this film?
The producer approached me with an idea on the Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital, an abandoned facility in Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. CNN has called it one of the seven scariest places on earth. Because this was going to be Korea’s first found-footage film, I wanted the audience to access it easily through the narrative and visuals. At the same time, I wanted to use classical techniques that create fear and suspense. So, the film starts out with a narrative that the viewer can easily follow, but throughout the film, especially towards the end, I used those cinematic tactics to build horror and suspense.
While using YouTube live streaming as a setting for the film, I attempted to move away from patterns seen in previous horror films. For example, the viewer might expect a ghost to appear at one point or another. I wanted to confuse the audience and keep them guessing, so I deliberately didn’t have the ghosts appear when the audience thought that they would. I deconstructed conventions so the viewer would be disarmed. When the ghost did pop out, I tried to magnify the tension as much as possible, as if I was competing with the viewer.
How did you come up with the idea for YouTube live streaming?
My son is a college student who watches clips of TV programs on his smartphone. I was intrigued that the clips would only show what is necessary and skip the rest of the program. My son also watches mukbang clips where the YouTuber will do a live broadcast of himself or herself eating while interacting with the audience. I was flabbergasted when I first saw him viewing that and asked, “Why do you watch other people eat?” Because I was trained with the traditional steps of organization – introduction, development, turn, and conclusion – I didn’t understand the allure of YouTube live streaming at first. Later, I began to understand why young people today are attracted to YouTubers.
Also Showbox, the distributor, had a marketing meeting before we even started shooting and decided to promote the film on social media. I frequently asked my son and daughter for their opinions because they are teens and understand popular culture. I think this whole culture of people posting on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter to share what they are doing and thinking is interesting. It seems that these people are experiencing things to the fullest – they post what film they are going to see, they post while they are watching it, and then they post their reviews afterwards. When the film was released, I saw people enjoying the whole moviegoing experience by posting movie tickets and their seats in the theatre, and also their thoughts after the film. That whole performance-as-play was interesting to me. Also, their postings drew a lot of attention to Gonjiam, which was great in promoting the film.
Can you talk about the filming process?
Most found-footage films have set-up cameras so that they will go look for the ghost. I thought about what I could do differently, and I aimed at capturing liveness both through the camerawork and the idea of YouTube live streaming. I wanted to show long unedited takes. I thought the audience would feel like they were in the scene.
If the director of photography shoots everything, the tone and mood would be consistent. However, it wouldn’t be anything new. While I didn’t want the tone and mood to interrupt the audience’s concentration, I also wanted to show something new and realistic. So I had 99 percent of the film shot by the actors themselves.
It was very difficult because we had to pre-arrange both body and camera movements. The actors each had a hand-held cam, a face cam, and a POV cam. And because they had to operate each camera separately, the actors were practically learning a new choreography each day. Based on my experiences in theatre, we planned the blocking, then rehearsed body and camera movement each day before the shooting. We did it each day before the shooting because most of them were new, inexperienced actors, and I didn’t want them memorizing the movement. I liked the rawness they emitted even if they made mistakes.
It was also difficult because we were pressed for time and didn’t have time to check the scenes while we were shooting. Let’s say six actors are in a ten-minute scene; each actor is operating three cameras, so that would make 180 minutes of footage. We didn’t have time to stop and check three hours of footage. And for some reason, the Wi-Fi didn’t work well, so we could only check some of the most important scenes and then move on to the next. It was a difficult process, but the actors were very enthusiastic about it.
Both Epitaph and Gonjiam represent Korean national history either as setting or motifs. Epitaph is set during the Japanese colonial rule. In Gonjiam, there are several dates and objects in the film that symbolize national history. March 10, 2017, the date that the two high school students visited Gojiam Hospital and got lost is the date that former president Park Geun-hye was impeached. The hospital opened on May 16, 1961 the day Park Chung-hee [South Korean dictator and Park Geun-hye’s father] staged his coup d’état; the facility was closed on October 26, 1979, the day of his assassination. The framed photos on the hospital walls show the hospital director with Park Chung-hee; another photo of the hospital director playing ping pong looks just like the one taken of Park Geun-hye when her father was president. And the dead chicken may remind the audience of Park Geun-hye, because Korean citizens disparagingly called her a “chicken.” What made you reflect such moments of national history in horror films?
When Shik [my co-director and cousin] and I were making Epitaph, we saw some newly discovered footage of the Japanese colonial rule at the Korean Film Archive. I saw these young Korean men being enlisted in the war and their families smiling and waving goodbye to them at the train station. I was so shocked. They didn’t know what was ahead of them. I thought most Koreans were pro-Japanese during colonial rule, or the dictator Park Chung-hee would not have done such horrible things if they could have seen the future. People don’t know what will happen. I think that is both sad and scary. That kind of horror and sadness was the motivation for Epitaph. That is why Epitaph ends with a hallway that looks like a tunnel, symbolizing life and where it will lead us.
When I was making Epitaph, it was way past the dictatorship yushin period, and I might even go as far to say that I felt a kind of sympathy for that period. But ten years after making Epitaph, Park Chung-hee’s daughter was doing terrible things, and I realized, “Oh, this is not something to be regarded with sympathy.” (I was in the middle of editing the film when Park Geun-hye was impeached.) So I put Gonjiam Hospital’s history in a fictional setting during the yushin period, to show how the specters of the yushin period still linger today, and how innocent children can die as a result – of course, referring to the Sewol Ferry tragedy.
For example, the naked ghost with the twisted body alludes to the people who were tortured under the dictatorship. They were stripped down to their underwear, and at that time, the most common underwear brands were was baekyang or ssangbangwool, you know, those plain white undies. So I had the ghost wear only the underwear that would have been worn by the students who went to a good university, participated in protests, and then were arrested and tortured. That smart student’s stomach is cut open and his head looks like he’s had brain surgery – that shows a kind of tragic quality of the period.
So Gonjiam is a horror film that holds both horror and sorrow. I decided to plant these Easter eggs to trigger the audience’s emotions. I positioned those triggers here and there in the narrative thinking it would be great if the audience could realize their significance.
However, what I really wanted to ask was, “Where did all of this start? How did we get here?” In the scene where the leader is monitoring the recording and hears a weird slow sound (like a ghost) is actually a voice in reverse. That voice is Park Chung-hee being sworn in as president. I actually didn’t tell others about this because it becomes too political and –
And you could be blacklisted in Korea.
But I think it all really starts with Park Chung-hee. The other Easter eggs were breadcrumbs leading to this. I was curious to see if the audience could discover that.
Is that why you included images that represent the Sewol Ferry tragedy in the film?
During one of our earliest shootings (the scene where all of the characters meet at a restaurant), I happened to see the yellow ribbon sticker on actress Ji-hyun Park’s mobile. It was her own phone, not a prop. I asked her to slide the phone into the camera’s view. While Gonjiam Hospital is associated with the yushin period, I decided the Sewol should also show up in the film. That is why the scariest room number is 402. Although the tragedy happened on April 16, 2014, I thought room number 416 would be too much. The tub filled with water in room 402 is also a reference to the tragedy.
What was the most difficult thing during the production?
The entire budget for the shooting and editing, which is a little over a billion Korean won (approximately US $920,000) was set even before the screenplay was done, so we had to prep everything according to the modest budget. We were always pressed for time so working hours were really difficult, and the cast and crew didn’t get much sleep. Pre-production was a month; we shot from December 2016 to January 13, 2017, except for the opening scene in the restaurant, which was shot in November 2016. The Post-production was 14 months, and it was finally released in March 2018. However, I don’t think (the tight schedule) was anybody’s fault…. There hasn’t been a previous case where a found-footage horror film was successful in Korea, so the investment would be risky.
What is filmmaking in South Korea like?
It’s so difficult to experiment, to try new things. The horror genre needs to experiment with a lot of things, but you can’t without a previously successful case because no investors want to take a risk. That is probably why horror is not a major part of the Korean film scene.
Can you tell us about your future plans?
I recently established a horror film label in Korea called Unpa Films. We currently have four writers working on three future projects. I want the label to help horror films become more mainstream in the Korean movie scene. I am also working on a new project separate from Unpa Films.
Areum Jeong is a visiting research fellow at the Asia Culture Research Institute, Korea. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from UCLA and her work takes a transnational approach to Korean film, literature, theater and performance.