Capsule Review Double-shot: ‘Train to Busan’ (2016) and ‘Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum’ (2018)

Somehow, over the last couple of decades, Korean horror movies have become a small, but significant, percentage of my viewing diet. Not JUST horror films – the Korean film industry as a whole seems to be doing pretty well, with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite winning the Oscar this year. Still it’s the horror movies I’m particularly aware of (I own Joon-ho’s The Host, for instance) and enjoy, from the early Whispering Corridors films to A Tale of Two Sisters and The Wailing.

This year I found myself wanting to revisit a favorite from 2016, Train to Busan. What I REALLY wanted was to binge-watch all three of Yeong Sang-ho’s Busan films – the animated Seoul Station, Train to Busan and this year’s The Peninsula. Unfortunately, The Peninsula isn’t available yet – in either streaming or physical form.

I didn’t really enjoy Seoul Station and decided I didn’t want to revisit it (also, turns out I reviewed it a few years back), so I found myself looking for another Korean horror film to pair with Train for a double bill. A friend who mentioned that they’d seen Gonjiam and thought it was pretty good – and I knew it was found footage, which is a bit of weak spot for me, so that gave me my weekend double bill. Call it “Korean Takes on Classic Horror Genres.”

The Mediums
Train to Busan is available via a number of services. I watched it on Shudder, but you can catch it on Prime, Hoopla, Tubi and others. It can also be rented/purchased from a handful of online vends. A Blu-ray is also available.

I watched Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum on Prime. It’s also available for subs on Hoopla and a service I’ve never heard of called ‘Hi-Yah! TV.” It can also be rented or purchased from most of the same places as Train. There’s also bare-bones Blu-ray available.

Train to Busan

I find that I re-watch a lot of older movies – movies that I saw when I was a kid, teenager or in my early adulthood. More recent films don’t enjoy the same level of circulation and I’m not exactly sure why that is. Perhaps it’s down to the fact that I have a lot more options, and a lot more ways to tell if something I’m about to watch is any good. Back in the VHS/DVD days I’d routinely rent both a new film I’d never seen and an old favorite – just in case the new film turned out to be a stinker.

Whatever the reason, I have fewer ‘modern’ favorites that I’m happy to pop in or click on. Train to Busan is one of the few that bucks that trend.

Watching the opening of Train to Busan, where a truck driver gets his vehicle hosed down by masked and gloved “quarantine” troops is a bit of an eye-opener this year. If you hadn’t seen the film before you could be forgiven for thinking you were about to watch a timely “plague” film, but Busan is going for a more classic outbreak, as revealed when a deer that the truck hits and kills stands up and looks, with cataract covered eyes, at the camera.

It’s a zombie movie, in the more modern “fast zombie” mode popularized by films like Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead or more directly by the 2013 adaptation of Max Brooks’ World War Z. Yeah, we’re all a little burnt out on zombie films these days, but Yeon Sang-ho’s film is consistently entertaining, without focusing too much on the zombies themselves and instead keeping the focus on the characters and the decisions they’re forced to make in the face of the undead threat.

Train doesn’t do much new with the genre, if I’m honest. We follow a diverse cast, including the workaholic dad (Gong Yoo), his precocious daughter (Kim Su-an), the tough-with-a-heart-of-gold working man (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife (Jung Yu-mi) and a number of other familiar archetypes. Over the course of the film the cast will be whittled down by zombie attacks and internal betrayals while the deadbeat dad will learn the value of family and sacrifice.

It’s the execution that makes the film a classic, though. Constructed almost like a disaster movie, Train – pardon the pun – keeps things moving from zombie attack, to improbable rescues, to sudden-but-inevitable betrayals and never leaves time enough to be bored or wonder to hard about plot points.

The characters are quickly sketched out by the script, but the actors make the most of what they have and you quickly grow attached an interested in their survival. (Ma Dong-seok’s Sang-hwa is the standout as the loveable tough guy.) Or, as with selfish businessman Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), interested in them NOT surviving.

The zombies themselves are spastic and spitting, given to massing at weak points in infrastructure until the sheer weight of them causes doors/windows/walls to collapse. Train introduces a weakness – darkness makes them lose track of their victims and become somewhat aimless and docile – that makes the threat posed by masses of fast, chomping dead people into something that can be dealt with instead of a nihilistic inevitability. They’re abilities and transformations might not be consistent, but they do the job as a believable threat that could conceivably put the entire country under a state of emergency.

The Bottom Line
Train to Busan balances a satisfying emotional storyline with (somewhat) gory and exciting set pieces, resulting in one of the best zombie films of the last decade – Korean or not. Highly recommended.

Gonjiam Haunted Asylum

Gonjiam has been sitting in my queue for a little bit, a recommended film based on some of my other viewing. I’ve kind of been avoiding it, as there’s plenty of dreck in Korean horror films, as there are in horror films in general. In addition, it’s found footage, which has a higher crap-to-gold ratio than a lot of sub-genres, and given how hit-or-miss the Japanese takes on the genre have been (mostly as a result of one man, Kōji Shiraishi) I was a little gun shy. Having had it recommended, I decided to give it shot.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum follows a horror web series crew as they investigate the title location. Gonjiam Psychiatric hospital is actually a real place and, as is mentioned in the film, was listed in CNN’s “7 freakiest locations on the planet.” The realtor responsible for trying to sell the place actually filed a lawsuit against the film, claiming it would make his job more difficult. Dude, it’s on CNN. That ship has sailed.

The “video crew investigates a haunted location only for it turn out to be really haunted” is a classic found footage trope, and responsible for some of the better films in the genre – thinking specifically of Grave Encounters and the Hell House LLC series – and Gonjiam does a good job with the premise, giving us a crew made partly of veteran production people and partly of fans of the show, the Horror Times. The setup is to have the professionals prepare a bunch of ‘scares’ ahead of time, record the real reactions of the amateurs, and pump up those viewership numbers with a live broadcast, netting them some sweet advertising cash.

I like all the outtake material with the characters at the beginning – that’s some of my favorite parts of Grave Encounters as well. It handles the heavy lifting of giving us a handle on the characters without too much exposition, which can kill a found footage film dead. We get just enough of their personalities – the hard-driving but charismatic leader, the naïve student, the “no I’m not” coward, the brash American, etc – to differentiate them when the shaky night cam starts, so one more in the plus column for Gonjiam.

Has there ever been a found footage movie where people know they’re engaging in stereotypical behavior that’s going to get people killed? I feel like there should be. This is not that film – the ghosts are none too pleased with the intrusion and as the film progresses the standard jump scare stuff of found footage films becomes more and more threatening and explicit. I like the way some of the cast basically “nope” out of the whole thing once it gets really bad, bailing on the show – skyrocketing viewership or not – and others essentially blackmail the producer to keep filming.

The weakness of Gonjiam is NOT in the traditional spots for found footage. The ending isn’t really abrupt and the special effects are not dodgy CGI and generally the whole thing is pretty effective in the suspense and scares dept.. Instead, the problem is that as the ghost attacks increase and the reach of the asylum itself expands beyond its walls, there’s no real plot line to hold all the activity together. Room 402 has no underlying reason for its danger. The ghosts don’t seem to have any identity other than being possible patients. Stuff happens that looks cool – a room with a water ceiling and no doors for instance – but it’s divorced from anything that could give it meaning. The whole last twenty minutes or so are filled with frenetic action, but it all feels like cool stuff for its own sake. Ghost attacks without rhyme or reason, as if they just decided to throw a bunch of stuff at the camera in the hope of overwhelming the viewer.

The Bottom Line
While the ending let me down a bit, I still very much enjoyed Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. It’s one of the better found footage movies – certainly the best Korean one. (Okay, it’s the ONLY Korean one.) If you’re a fan of found footage movies I highly recommend it.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.