Fantasia Festival: Socialphobia [Review]

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Socialphobia is the debut feature from Hong Seok-jae who tackles the increasingly disturbing knock-on effects of social media abuse and cyberbullying in South Korea.

In the early hours of the morning, the news for the day piles onto the social media feeds, with the top story being that of a soldier from the army having taken his own life. As is often the case when tragedy occurs in the world, someone online hiding behind their twitter handle responds with an abusive and distasteful comment. Unhappy with the users comment, a group of young guys decide to throw the abuse back, confront her and live-stream the entire thing. When they get there, a corpse is found hanging by the balcony.

The unnerving realisation that words spoken online have materialised into actual consequences hits the group hard, and while they become the number one scapegoats, others suspect foul play. A murder mystery type of scenario unfolds, still firmly rooted in the realms of social media. All discussions, research and evidence gathered is shared online in groups, and as they press harder for an answer we are taken on many different potential avenues to resolve this mystery.

Socialphobia is littered with young talent; Lee Joo-seung and Byun Yo-han armed with lots of independent film experience inject a great deal of authenticity, and work well off the supporting characters. Unfortunately, outside of these two we know very little about anyone else in the entire film. However, it is a conflicting situation, because while it was necessary to at least have some character development, by doing so it brought down the frantic tempo of the opening scenes, and ultimately spent a large portion of the film bogged down exploring these two. When everyone is a suspect, and new characters are being introduced, an even spread of interest beyond the two stars may have been more effective.

Social media can be used for the greater good, it can also be used to upload a photo of your ass to millions of people, and it can be a hurtful, hateful tool. Watching Socialphobia I saw parallels to the way I see it and technology being used around me; we walk around like zombies on our phones almost developing a sixth sense to enable us to walk and type at the same time, ignoring the world around us as we are transfixed on our small, smashed, phone screen messaging someone you’re probably about to meet anyway. The slightest bit of gossip, a photo, a video, a tweet can spiral wildly out of control and destroy careers, families and lives. I thought our social media problem was bad. Both in the way people use it, and in the way it’s policed; but, is it really that bad in South Korea? As the film progressed, this aggressive pursuit of anyone who disagreed with anything anyone else said seemed a tad far-fetched, and only got worse as it went on.

Upon finishing the film, I jumped online and began to look into how this film, supposedly based on true events, would ever be able to exist. Articles from 5 years ago confirm that Cyber-Bullying was on the rise in South Korea, with false rumours moving some celebrities to suicide (Most notably, Choi Jin Sil in 2008), and individuals being forced to leave their jobs, homes and in some instances even the country. Another example is that of Dan Lee (Tablo), a famous rapper in South Korea had to go as far to make a documentary about his education due to an influx of death threats, because an internet community didn’t believe he went to Stanford University.  As of December 2014, 1 in 4 say they are cyber-bullied in one of the most connected countries in the world, and as the government initiates an appto provide alerts to parents when abusive language is thrown at their child, perhaps I underestimated just how real this film is.

Socialphobia is a great example of original independent film-making and a decent first outing by Hong Seok-jae, but despite the exciting opening and final third, it lacked the consistent pace of a thriller to really grab me. However, as discovered post-film, Socialphobia must hold much more weight back at home. In terms of depicting how vulgar certain behaviours are online, channeling commonly held attitudes towards the way social media is being used and emphasising what is clearly a widespread issue, it is an ambitious feature that carries significant and much-needed awareness.

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