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A film review by Aaron Rourke

With Oliver Stone’s Snowdon hitting cinemas later this year, detailing the revelations made by Ed Snowdon in exposing highly questionable cyber surveillance carried out by government agencies, there is another film out now which deals with everyday people’s moral responsibility in regards to online behaviour.

Socialphobia, shows us a world where extreme cruelty is just another form of communication and casual entertainment, easy to dole out when the aggressor can hide in the shadows.

Friends Ji-woong (Byun Yo-han) and Yong-min (Lee Joo-seung) are your typical university students, studying as hard as they need to, while enjoying after-hours pursuits such as gaming and social media interaction.

When a young soldier escapes from his barracks to commit suicide, Ji-woong, Yong-min and their close-knit group notice the internet outrage surrounding a comment made on twitter by someone named Re-na, who callously states that the dead soldier is lame and hopes he has fun in hell.

As the vitriol towards this unknown user reaches its peak, someone leaks Re-na’s real name (Min Ha-young) and address on line, and even encourages people out there to go over and teach her a lesson.

Yong-Min, caught up in the heat of the moment, convinces Ji-woong to follow a ramshackle posse that has gathered at their local PC Bang over to Ha-young’s apartment. The local podcast hero, appropriately called Mr Babble, is streaming the event live, so Ha-young can hear (and see) the all-male entourage’s threats of physical violence.

When the group arrive at Ha-young’s place, laughing about what they are going to do to her, they are in for a very big surprise.

Socialphobia is cleverly conceived and executed. It never treats the topic it wants to explore in a heavy-handed manner, and doesn’t portray the characters involved as one-dimensional villains or monsters.

By keeping the situations and people as believable as possible, it makes it all-the-more unsettling seeing these youngsters display a distinctive Jekyll and Hyde persona, not realising there are real consequences to their virtual actions.

There is something inherently distressing in reading the type of comments put on the web, where the most vicious, outrageous opinions on general beliefs or smaller events are deemed totally justifiable.

Recent cases such as the cup-cake sale to support gender equality, or certain mothers and their individual stance on pro-vaccination are perfect examples, highlighting this worrying trend of people making extreme, psychotic statements while cowardly hiding behind an anonymous username.

Despite Ji-woong’s affable nature, we get a glimpse of how easy it is to walk down this dark digital path right from the start, when he sends a threatening comment to the country’s most despised keyboard warrior of the minute.

This, along with the manic scene of everyone at the PC Bang insulting Re-na via numerous keystrokes, amplifies this misconception that we think we know these people personally, simply because we witness their onscreen username and twenty-five words-or-less commentaries on a regular basis. Who cares how nasty the remark is when there is no face-to-face confrontation.

Performances by the youthful cast are brilliant. Hyun Yo-han confidently walks that fine line between the good Samaritan and willing conformist, and illustrates effectively the choices we make and how they may come back to haunt us.

With some of the more morally dubious characters that litter the film’s social media landscape, Yo-han makes sure the audience has someone we can not only connect with, but can have credible hope in.

Lee Joo-seung also scores as Yong-min, deftly handling his character’s more ambivalent nature and belief in the virtual world’s murky rule-of-law.

Debut writer/director Hong Seok-jae shows genuine intelligence and concern towards the topical subject, and his strong effort is thankfully bereft of condescending speechifying and overt melodrama, and seems to fully understand the domain that today’s tech-heavy young generation inhabit.

After watching a report where a local German council have installed blinking lights on the ground so mobile phone users notice when they are about to walk on a road, one realises we really are living in a brand new world, where these obsessives are more interested in social media hearsay than basic safety and common sense.

While there are abundant positives with the introduction of modern technology, there are many behavioural changes that have sent us spiraling backwards. Seoak-jae criticises this entrenched form of communication without completely demonising it, promoting balance and responsibility rather than lazily saying cyberspace shouldn’t exist.

Socialphobia is a film that stays with you, forcing you to think about what you would do if put in a similar predicament, and how a fractured, inflamed viewpoint can affect the way one interacts on line.

It may be a momentary lapse of judgement, but it can have tragic and permanent impact. While younger viewers may see this as just the way things are, film-maker Hong Seok-jae wants everyone to think a little bit harder and deeper about the technology they are using, and how it is changing and distorting the way we see and treat other people. The fact that we do want to discuss this afterwards shows that Seok-jae has succeeded in his intended goal, while also giving us an engrossing mystery/drama.


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