This cyberbullying whodunit asks relevant questions about the implications of our actions online.
Socialphobia (Fantasia Review)
Even though it’s been nearly 40 years since Steve Jobs introduced the Apple II, and nearly 25 years since America Online introduced that infamous catchphrase “You’ve Got Mail,” cyber law has always lagged behind the times. This phenomenon reared its ugly head in 2010 when a gay Rutgers University student committed suicide after his roommate live-streamed his sexual encounters via a webcam. Was his roommate responsible for murder?
Of course, cyberbullying is ubiquitous, and director Seok-jae Hong takes us into the heads of a group of college-aged Internet friends who all hang out in an internet cafe in Seoul, South Korea. Things get heated when Min (Yun-Kyoung Ha), a frequent internet troll in various online communities, posts an inflammatory tweet about a military man who has recently committed suicide. Ji-woong (Yo-han Byeon) and Yong-min (Lee Ju-Seung), who know each other from their training to be police offers, take the tweet personally. Yong-min, the more hotheaded of the two, encourages Ji-woong to join the onslaught of hate tweets the group are hurling back and forth with Min. Incensed by her insensitive remarks, the group decides they’re going to head to her house for a real-life “PK” (a gamer term for “player kill”). Although the line of what is actually meant to occur is blurred (as if often the case in conflicts that begin online), presumably nobody actually intended to kill her, just humiliate her—perfect fodder for an online show one of the guys hosts. But when they get to her apartment, the young woman is already dead from an apparent suicide, and the students are appropriately horrified. Therein starts the main question of the film: Was it suicide, or was Min murdered?
Ji-woong and Yong-min decide to put their police training to good use, investigating Min’s murder for themselves. The fact that Twitter may have played a direct role in her death doesn’t seem to deter the two friends (or their gang of gamers) at all, as they decide to show large parts of their investigation on a YouTube show, a manic rendering of all the latest Internet gossip. The popularity of the show leads to online Reddit-style communities looking for Min’s killer, eventually spawning subthreads when primary suspects emerge. Yong-min convinces Ji-woong that their future careers are on the line (who is going to hire two guys who were involved with a young woman’s murder?), so when a message appears on one of the forums from a witness, they decide to meet the anonymous poster in person. This turns out to be the first of several leads that bring them closer to understanding if it’s really possible for someone as confident as Min to kill herself, or if someone else was to blame.
The film has some real things going for it. The script (also written by director Seok-jae Hong) manages to refrain from feeling overly didactic because of Hong’s apparent knowledge of the nuances of gamer culture. The script does a good job of showing how easy things can snowball, how normal these actions feel at the time, and how the cycle repeats itself because no one actually stops to connect the dots of online actions and real-life outcomes. Since a lot of the movie actually involves text overlays on the screen (showing what’s being said on Twitter or in chatrooms), it’s imperative to the film’s success that these interactions feel real, and to Hong’s credit they do. Also helpful is that the three leads (Ji-woong, Yong-min, and Min) feel fairly comfortable in surprisingly conflicted roles (at times, it’s easy to hate each character for their disregard, while at other times their naiveté feels all too relatable). The only exchange that’s a little jolted is an ex-classmate of Min’s who serves as nothing more than a conduit for a flashback about Min’s poor reaction to an in-class writing workshop, revealing that Min might not be as confident as she appears to me. It’s as close as the film comes to telling, not showing. The film’s much more confident when following the young men, who are harmless oddballs individually but vicious when unified by the exhilarating power of shared online hate.
But as spot-on as the dialogue and interactions of the group of guys are, the hunt for Min’s killer is a bit halfhearted. It follows a more generic pattern for the mystery genre, and there are some obvious plot holes too (how do the guys keep returning to Min’s apartment to shoot their little YouTube videos?). Then Ji-woong, in most regards the more reasonable one, decides to steal Min’s laptop to search for evidence. Would the police not have already confiscated it? The saving grace here is that the ending does turn out to be a bit unexpected and reinforces the major theme of the film: how insidious online harassment can be. Without consequences, it festers on and on to more extreme outcomes. It seems the script is more interested in making a point than creating a fully fleshed out story—and since that point is well worth making, it’s actually easy to forgive some of these holes. With cyberbullying becoming more like an epidemic with each passing day, Socialphobia should make for a timely addition to the discussion.
Socialphobia had its Quebec premiere on August 1st at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival. To find out more about the festival, visit http://www.fantasiafestival.com/