Movie Review – Be With You (2018) [Far East Film Festival 20]

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EXPECTATIONS: A remake that would equal the original Japanese film.

REVIEW: When one reviews a remake, is it possible to do so without talking about the original assuming if one knows about the original in the first place? Absolutely not. When the remake has the same story and the same name, how can one not talk about it?

In recent times, South Korea has remade Asian films such as Junichi Mori’s Little Forest and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Golden Slumber. And in the upcoming times, audiences will also get Believer, which is a remake of Johnnie To’s crime-thriller Drug War. And as expected, the overall critical response is mixed. The former has received positive reviews while the latter has received a more negative response.

While Believer remains to be seen, now we have a remake of Nobuhiro Doi’s 2004 romantic drama, Be With You called…well, you get the idea. With a talented cast, a first-time director and the fact that South Korean film specializes in melodramas, how can this remake go wrong?

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The film starts off with the telling of a fairy tale, detailing the story about a mother who makes a promise to her loved ones that she will come back to life to revisit them.

From there we go to Soo-ah (Son Ye-jin), a loving housewife who before passing away makes an unbelievable promise to her husband, Woo-jin (So Ji-sub), to return one year later on a rainy day.

Miraculously, she keeps the promise and reappears before her husband and son but all her memories have disappeared. Tragically, the relief at their reunion is short-lived, because it turns out that Soo-ah has to leave her family once again.

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Does the film stand out on its own as well as being a proficient remake? The answer unfortunately is no. With most remakes, the problem is simple: they don’t stand-out from their inspiration. The best parts of the film are the parts where the original succeeded in, which means that director Lee Jang-hoon knew what made the original work. Scenes relating to the past, with young love are executed well, particularly with the young actors Lee You-jin and Kim Hyun-soo.

And the problematic parts of the film are the parts that were already present in the original (manipulative musical score and suspension of disbelief) and where the filmmakers try to embellish the story with individual elements. The original film is 13 minutes shorter than the remake, which basically means there are 13 minutes of footage that easily could’ve been cut out. Scenes like the telling of the fantasy story and the scene early in the film involving the father and his health feel blatant in what needs to be conveyed.

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Few of the embellishing moments of the film are quite welcome though. An added sense of humour does provide great contrast to the dour nature of the story, with Ko Chang-seok (and Bae Yu-nam) providing great support as Hong-goo, Woo-jin’s best friend. And there’s also a great cameo from a famous actress that got a big laugh out of me.

But the biggest problem of the film is the lack of chemistry between the leads. Son Ye-jin, who’s done many roles of this nature (from A Moment to Remember to The Classic to Spellbound, the list goes on) unfortunately feels distant and cold in the role of Soo-ah. So Ji-sub, who is better in roles of a darker nature like in Rough Cut, is just okay in the role of Woo-jin. He has good scenes with Kim Ji-hwan, as his son and the comedic scenes with Ko are amusing, but the romantic chemistry with Son never lights up.

For both parts, it is quite hard for the audience to be empathetic of their situation romance-wise in the early stages of the film, but when the film reaches its emotional crescendo and it provides the two a chance to sink her teeth into, it’s too little, too late.

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And the nature of the story is quite problematic as the original was. A feminist critique might focus on how Soo-ah’s importance to the family seems to be directly related to her ability to cook, clean, and basically take care of Woo-jin and Ji-ho, and not how the story really affects her. In this day of age, this issue could’ve been the perfect reason for director Lee to address it and make the remake stand out, but unfortunately, it becomes a missed opportunity.

And that’s all the Be With You remake is: a missed opportunity to be something great. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, it just feels like a lot of remakes nowadays: unnecessary.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Some much-needed mirth

The past flashbacks are the best parts, due to appealing leads

Most parts of the film that work in the original work in the remake

CONS

Lack of chemistry between the leads in present day

All problems in the original are present in the remake

Use of musical score is quite manipulative

Fails to address major issue in premise, especially during current political climate

SCORE: 5/10

Cast: Son Ye-jin, So Ji-sub, Lee You-jin, Kim Hyun-soo, Kim Ji-hwan, Ko Chang-seok, Bae Yu-nam, Lee Jun-hyeok, Seo Jeong-yeon
Director: Lee Jang-hoon
Screenwriters: Lee Jang-hoon, Kang Soo-jine, based on the novel Be With You by Takuji Ichikawa

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Movie Review – The Bookshop

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EXPECTATIONS: An understated, emotionally stirring piece of work.

REVIEW: Isabel Coixet has always been a talented filmmaker, making understated drama films dealing with issues like existentialism and inner turmoil to great aplomb. Although there have been some highs in her filmography like My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words (both starring the talented actress/director Sarah Polley), her last few films have signaled a steady decline in quality.

Since 2009’s beautiful yet empty Maps of the Sounds of Tokyo, her films have ranged from emotionally resonant to thematically lightweight. Now, we have her latest film, The Bookshop, which is adapted from an acclaimed novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald. With its talented cast and strong source material, will it get Coixet out of her slump?

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Emily Mortimer stars as Florence Green, a widow who has just decided to put her turmoils behind her and risk everything to open up a bookshop; the first shop of its type in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough, England.

But this seemingly innocent decision causes quite a stir in the town, which brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Mrs. Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), Harborough’s alpha who is a wannabe prominent of the local arts scene.

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Is The Bookshop a stellar film that gets Coixet out of her slump? Well…as with all of Coixet’s films, the cinematography, courtesy of regular cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu, is striking to look at. The musical score by Alfonso de Vilallonga is quite effective when utilized at the right moments.

And the last but not least, the standout performance is from Honor Kneafsey. She struggles a little bit in the first act but manages to find the perfect balance in conveying maturity and naivety, as Christine. With her performance here and her work in the murder mystery film Crooked House, her career looks like it could go on to greener pastures.

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Which makes it all the more disappointing that The Bookshop lands with a loud thud. Despite the fact that the film is adapted from acclaimed source material, the characters are as thin as the pages they’re written on. Florence wants to start a bookshop because she likes books and the film never develops the character nor the motivation beyond that. And the same goes for Mrs. Gamart, who wants to use the foundation of the bookshop to build an art center. Mustache-twirling ensues.

The acting would’ve given the characters and the film much-needed vitality but they’re all quite lifeless. Mortimer is okay as Florence, but her performance confuses inner emoting with inactivity. Nighy gets in a few chortles but he looks like he’s reprising his role as a zombie in Shaun of the Dead. His performance doesn’t come off as subtle, it comes off as sedated. Clarkson, who’s shown acerbity like a professional in many films, most recently in Sally Potter’s The Party, is unfortunately quite de-fanged here.

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It certainly doesn’t help the actors that the storytelling is all over the place, led by (or led off?) by Coixet’s loose direction, which just goes off into montages of misery without any character investment. To make up for the lack of convincing conflict and thin characterization, narration (read by Julie Christie) is added and it is patronizing, illogical and snore-inducingly terrible.

In one scene, Bill Nighy’s character, Brundish, tears the portrait pages from book covers and tosses them on a fire, while the narration says “There was nothing that bothered him more than the portraits that appeared in certain editions.” In another scene, we see Florence being angry at the bank teller, the narration actually states that “She is angry”. It’s bad enough that the audience are not only disengaged, but they’re being treated like brain-damaged morons.

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And when the film isn’t being boring, it becomes increasingly creepy, with the inclusion of a slight romance between Florence and Brundish, as the two bond over the love of books. The age difference is just terrifying and speaking of morbidity, the ending of the film is so predictable, that a certain plot device shown early in the film, completely ruins it. The foreshadowing is just insultingly solid-black.

Overall, The Bookshop is a predictable bore that wastes many of its talents on terrible storytelling and emotionally stunted direction from Coixet. Give a hoot, read a book. But don’t watch this movie. See The Guernsey Literary and the Potato Peel Pie Society instead. Now that’s a film that at least conveys the love of books in a more entertaining and compelling fashion.

Quickie Review

PROS

Honor Kneafsey’s performance

Well-shot and in some parts, well-scored

CONS

Inconsistent performances

Patronizing narration

Underdeveloped script

Boring storytelling

Creepy attempt at romance

SCORE: 3/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, Honor Kneafsey, James Lance, Reg Wilson, Michael Fitzgerald, Hunter Tremayne, Frances Barber, Nigel O’Neill, Jorge Suquet, Harvey Bennett, Charlotte Vega, Julie Christie (narrator)
Director: Isabel Coixet
Screenwriters: Isabel Coixet, based on the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald

Movie Review – Tully

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that is as good as Juno and Young Adult.

REVIEW: If there’s one creative collaboration that many were looking forward to, it’s the collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. Their first collaboration was the 2007 comedy-drama Juno. With its hip dialogue, wonderful performances and a refreshing view of the coming-of-age genre (for that time), it was a critically-acclaimed hit that was a huge step for their careers.

And for their second collaboration, they overcome the sophomore slump and made the 2011 film Young Adult, an uncompromising and funny look at prolonged adolescence that despite never achieving the success of Juno, it still showed that Reitman and Cody were a force to be reckoned with.

But after that, their recent work in separate vocations have gotten mixed results. Reitman had gone along to director the execrable romantic-drama Labor Day, which was a carbon-copy of a terrible Nicholas Sparks film adaptation. And then he directed the incredibly misguided teenage drama Men, Women and Children, a film with an interesting premise explored with such sloppy and overbearing execution.

As for Cody, she’s gone on to write other scripts for middling films like the comedy-drama Ricki and the Flash and made her directorial debut, Paradise, which was a critical and financial flop. Now the two talents have reunited once again for Tully, a comedy/drama about the difficulties of motherhood with Charlize Theron coming back into the fray. Will the film get Reitman and Cody back on their feet?

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Theron stars as Marlo, a HR employee at a protein bar company who’s just about to give birth to her third child. Her husband, Ron (Ron Livingston, fitting), loves her very much and works hard, but unfortunately remains oblivious about the demands that motherhood puts on her.

After the baby is born, her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass), offers a solution to hire a nighttime nanny to help handle the increasing workload. After a long consideration, she buckles down and decides to hire Tully (Mackenzie Davis). Performing miracles left and right, the two start to form a strong bond. But when Marlo starts to know more about Tully, things start to appear a little off…

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Does the film succeed as a commentary on motherhood as well as a worthwhile creative endeavour between Reitman, Cody and Theron? Reitman still goes for the retro-hip vibe with his use of music like Cyndi Lauper and Cody still goes for the cooler-than-real dialogue (although no “Honest to blog” lines happen) that made her popular in the first place but thankfully, it is a return to form to what they do best: showing empathy for deeply flawed characters with very little sugar-coating.

While the story sounds like a feel-good experience or something with flights of fancy, the execution is anything but. Uncompromising, acidic and funny, Tully brings a sense of duality to the story, making both the slightly fantastical and the gritty collide together at times where it might seem like a fault to the storytelling, but in retrospect, brings greater depth to the characters, particularly Marlo.

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Charlize Theron has always been a transformative actress who relies on physicality with her performances, with films like the serial-killer biopic Monster to the comedy-drama Young Adult to the action blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road and the recent spy-thriller Atomic Blonde. In the case of Tully, she gives one of her best performances in her entire career. Nuanced, fierce, vulnerable, quirky and acerbic, sometimes all at once, Theron makes Marlo remarkably human.

Mackenzie Davis, whose talents show in acclaimed shows like Halt and Catch Fire and Black Mirror and films like the psychological thriller Always Shine, have been underutilized lately, especially in Blade Runner 2049. Here in the title role, she brightens up the screen the second she shows up. Charming, energetic, lively, it’s no wonder why Marlo would get along with Tully and both Theron and David share great chemistry, particularly when the relationship becomes more intimate.

Even the supporting and seemingly obligatory characters are brought to life by both Livingston and Duplass. Livingston in particular stands out because he makes his character relatable, which is surprising considering the actions (on inaction) his character does throughout most of the film.

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The story is told quite well, with some stumbles (the foreshadowing, involving a mermaid) but the film never flinches when dealing with motherhood. One moment involves Marlo carrying her child in a baby bassinet and accidentally hitting it against a filing cabinet, which brought gasps from the audience.

While there is nothing new or original in the story itself, the film does feature a major turn in the third act that brings a whole new perspective to what happened prior, contextualizing the film in a whole new way that lends depth to the characters’ actions. But undoubtedly, that major turn is bound to polarize audiences, making them feel that it just cheapens the film’s impact on such a turn.

Overall, Tully is a return to form for both director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. Featuring great performances (particularly Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis), an unflinching and engrossing look on motherhood and a witty, acerbic script from Cody, Tully is a film worth looking out for.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Reitman’s direction and Cody’s writing capably empathizes with its flawed characters

Very funny and engrossing look into motherhood

CONS

The third act reveal is bound to polarize

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Emily Haine, Elaine Tan
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Diablo Cody

Movie Review – A or B

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EXPECTATIONS: An entertainingly bonkers thriller.

REVIEW: The cat-and-mouse thriller genre has been a great well for filmmakers to mine since Alfred Hitchcock came into the picture. With classic films like Strangers on a Train to current films like The Commuter, films where the lead character is an ordinary person swept up in extraordinary circumstances have been a constant in cinema.

With China’s latest effort in the cat-and-mouse genre, we have A or B, with Xu Zheng playing the hapless lead in the extraordinary situation which could involve the potential loss of his wealth, his belongings and even his wife, thanks to an unknown assailant. Will the film provide the requisite thrills?

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Xu Zheng stars as billionaire thief, Zhong Xiaonian prowls auction houses appearing calm on the surface while plotting a multi-million-dollar heist. But just as his criminal career is about to strike gold, he’s kidnapped and forced to take part in a twisted multiple-choice game (hence the title) controlled by a mysterious, unknown captor.

By not going along with the captor’s game, he’s on the verge of losing his reputation, all of his possessions and his long-suffering wife (Wang Likun) so must beat his anonymous captive at their own game before it gets deadly.

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One of the essential elements of a successful cat-and-mouse thriller is that the audience should be able to empathize and relate to the predicament of the lead character(s). In the case of A or B, we see Xiaonian, a character who is despicable in the way he treats his co-workers, his friends and especially his wife. It would take a certain kind of actor to play the role very well and unfortunately, Xu Zheng is not that actor.

Zheng tries valiantly, lending a sense of desperation to the character but his performance doesn’t help the fact that the character is unlikable not worth caring for. Wang Likun also tries her best as Simeng, Xiaonian’s wife, but her thinly-written character is left nothing to do but suffer. Suffer for her husband, suffer for her life, it just goes on and on and it doesn’t make a compelling character and only serves as a motivation for the lead, which is a real shame.

The supporting cast are all okay with their parts like Duan Bowen as a reporter who helps Xiaonian out and Wang Yanhui, overacting gloriously as the scumbag competitor to Zhu Zhu as the vamp femme fatale; but Simon Yam plays a role that is only present for less than a minute and honestly, anyone could’ve have played that role.

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Another essential element is the plausibility of the predicament. As for the storytelling itself, director Ren Pengyuan lends a pedestrian execution to the proceedings. While there are some moments that add life to the story i.e. the more desperate moments in the climax, it goes beyond ridiculous that it’s hard to empathize with what’s happening.

There are moments where Xiaonian all of a sudden becomes MacGruber MacGyver and improvises objects that would help his escape. Those moments are unbelievable but they are undeniably entertaining, even if one of the moments basically rips off the 2005 American thriller, Cellular. But the film wades into melodrama in the second act, which revolves around Xiaonian and Simeng and it wallows there, having the life sucked out of it.

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It also does not help that the culprit in charge of kidnapping Xiaonian is very easy to figure out and the motivation for said villain is quite rote and is revealed too little, too late. And just when the ending of the film suits what had proceeded it, thanks to the magic of Chinese film censorship, all of what happened was all for naught, thanks to the end credit sequences, that are pandering, insulting and a total cop-out.

And there are filmmaking gaffes that are quite blatant like continuity errors (eg. inconsistent car damage in the car chase), plot holes like how no authority bothered to track down who sent the suspicious messages, how did the characters gather all the lights and so on.

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There are even terrible lines of dialogue like “A number that cannot be turned to cash is just a number” and this reviewer’s personal favourite, “People would indeed die for money”. The audience just went through 90 minutes where the message conveyed exactly that. There was no need to verbalize it and it just comes off as patronizing.

And there’s the bizarre elements like how the antagonists in the film cater to Japanese customs like eating sushi, which goes back to the xenophobia of Chinese film censorship and the use of a bomb that actually says the word “EXPLOSIVE” on it, in English. Whether one were to see it as patronizing or it’s meant to hint that it’s a foreign product because the Chinese would never make explosives, who knows?

It just goes to show how unengaging the film is when these details go noticed. Overall, A or B is a middling cat-and-mouse experience with few thrills, a couple of okay performances, saddled with a cool premise. Unfortunately, due to the slack pacing, the sloppy storytelling, the unlikable lead character and the cop-out ending(s), the film doesn’t make the grade of either an A or a B. More like a D-minus, really.

Quickie Review

PROS

An interesting premise

Some okay performances

Some ridiculously entertaining moments

CONS

Sloppy storytelling

Melodramatic second act

Terrible end-credit scenes that ruin what had preceded it

SCORE: 4/10

Cast: Xu Zheng, Wang Likun, Duan Bowen, Wang Yanhui, Zhu Zhu, Simon Yam
Director: Ren Pengyuan
Screenwriters: Ren Pengyuan

Movie Review – Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (Far East Film Festival 20)

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EXPECTATIONS: A sub-par found footage entry from the ever-going underwhelming entries of Korean horror.

REVIEW: Found-footage films is the type of genre that has been around longer than one would think. Going back to the 80’s with cult classics like Cannibal Holocaust and Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood to 90’s films like Man Bites Dog and then the big milestone in the genre, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. The one that bought the genre into the mainstream and it thoroughly convinced people that the events in the film were real due to its realistic depictions.

And with later entries like Paranormal Activity, REC and Cloverfield, it showed that found-footage is the type of genre that isn’t one to be messed with. But the genre began to die down over the years with mediocre entries and over-saturation of said genre. But most of the time, it was because they did not adhere to the rules of found-footage. Here are the rules to make a good found-footage film:

1. Footage must not be filmed professionally.

2. Actors must not be recognizable nor act like they are in a film.

3. Dialogue must sound realistic and not scripted.

4. There must be no use of a musical score or non-diegetic sound.

5. The footage must end in a tragic manner in order to be “found”.

6. There must be a convincing reason for why the camera is still rolling.

7. Cut to the chase of the story that the footage is made for.

If any of these rules are broken, it takes the audience out of the film and makes it easy for them to pick apart the film to shreds due to the film’s lack of verisimilitude. But the rules can be bent, as with films like Unfriended showing that non-diegetic sound and the use of music can compliment the film.

Now we have South Korea’s entry into the found-footage genre, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. Considering the entries of horror from South Korea has been quite inconsistent lately and this is actually the first found-footage film from South Korea ever, expectations are quite high. Does the film do the genre proud?

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In 1979, 42 patients at Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital killed themselves and the hospital director went missing. Rumors and strange stories about the now abandoned Gonjiam Mental Hospital abound.

An internet broadcaster recruits a handful of people for their ‘experience the horror’ show at Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital. They are to explore the haunted asylum and stream it live on their online show. To attract more viewers, the show hosts play tricks on the guests, but things start to get out of control after they sneak into the place.

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Does Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum live up to the high standards of the found-footage genre? No, but it does provide an above-average experience as it adheres to most of the found-footage rules whilst delivering some true, genuine scares.

Let’s see how it goes by the rules. For the first rule, in the story, the film utilizes the latest technology in film gear including digital camera with mounts and the use of drones and it is used quite well in the film, particularly when it shows its flaws like fuzziness and lack of a strong connection. The use of technology also makes the character interactions in the first act feel integral and natural, since the story states that the footage is shown in a livestream.

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As for the actors, most of them are unknown and thankfully, they all give performances that rarely feel jarring and feel natural and genuine. Even when they feel quite jarring, it fits within the scope of the story. Moon Ye-won in particular runs through the gamut of emotions here and she does a good job.

As for the dialogue and character motivations, the script is well-written enough to convey the characters quite well and they rarely make odd decisions that feel scripted, except for one major one that feels quite unbelievable, even if it fit that certain character. The script also provides a good reason as to why the camera is still rolling, relating to social media and the use of the internet for easy fame, satiating greed.

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As for the filmmaking, the jump scares that happen always occur with diegetic sound, whether it would be the sound of a door slam, a noise a person makes or the use of breathing and the gust of a wind, the sound design is quite effective in amplifying up the tension. It also helps that there is no use of a musical score, except for the webcam show segments, which adds to the realism of the storytelling.

Director Jung Bum-sik relies on the power of suggestion, the sounds of silence and the less-is-more kind of filmmaking to great effect rather than the use of jump scares, blood and gore or even actual violence. He does crib from films like The Blair Witch Project, particularly with scenes set in the dark forest, but they are still quite effective in their own right.

Overall, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is an above-average entry in the found-footage genre. With genuine scares, a fitting cast and a strong adherence to verisimilitude from Bum-sik’s direction, it’s a haunting experience that’s bound to spook a few frights out of the audience.

Quickie Review

PROS

Well-executed scares and sustained tension

Adheres to the found-footage rules quite well

Overall good performances

CONS

Derivative at times

Some overacting

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Wi Ha-joon, Park Ji-hyun, Oh Ah-yeon, Moon Ye-won, Park Sung-hoon, Lee Seung-wook, Yoo Je-yoon, Park Ji-a
Director: Jung Bum-sik
Screenwriters: Jung Bum-sik, Park Sang-min