South Korean film “Socialphobia” is a very disturbing mystery film for our advancing era of online communication. Thanks to the rapid development of communication technology, we have more freedom to exchange and express our thoughts and feelings with many other people on the Internet, but this useful technological development also opens the door to many unpleasant cases of human indecency we hear about from time to time. Behind the mask of anonymity or the armor of mob mentality, people can be very mean and cruel to someone else at the other end of the communication line, and, sadly, what is shown in the movie is not so far from our reality.
Everything begins with one thoughtless twitter comment on the recent suicide incident of a deserter which becomes the news of the week as drawing lots of attention on the Internet. The online quarrel between this anonymous female twitter user in question and other angered users ensues right after that crude comment, and then almost everything about Ha-yeong (Ha Yoon-kyeong) is virtually exposed to everyone who has any slightest interest in the ongoing quarrel. It may be easy to hide behind anonymity on the Internet, but it is also pretty easy to get yourself naked in front of the unforgiving stare of many unknown people once you are marked – and it is also not that easy to take back whatever you said or wrote on the Internet.
After getting more provoked by Ha-yeong’s hostile responses, a group of young guys decide to shame her with a full exposure through online broadcast during one night. As approaching to an apartment building where she lives, they cheerfully broadcast their progress on the Internet and they even take a group photograph before embarking on this petty and vulgar act of public humiliation which will surely give them a moment of sweet revenge.
However, their mean fun is quickly dissipated as they slowly come to realize something is terribly wrong. The front door of Ha-yeong’s apartment is unexpectedly left opened when they finally arrive at the spot, and then they come to discover the horrifying consequence of their action after entering her apartment. It seems Ha-yeong has committed suicide not long before they arrive, and now they have labeled themselves as the perpetrators of this regretful tragedy in front of everyone watching their online broadcast, though they are not technically guilty in legal sense.
In case of Ji-woong (Byeon Yo-han) and Yong-min (Lee Joo-seung), they find themselves in a particularly difficult position as realizing more of how much this incident can affect their future. They have been preparing for joining the police, and it goes without saying that the incident will be a permanent blemish in their record, which will certainly not look that good to their interviewers even if they pass the exams. To make the matters worse, Ji-woong becomes the next target of online witch-hunt after his involvement in the incident is exposed on the Internet, and his plight is not just confined within the online world as reflected by one brief but painful scene.
As their situation becomes gloomier day by day, Ji-woong is drawn to a small possibility suggested by Young-min. As they think more about that fateful night, there was something suspicious about Ha-yeong’s sudden suicide, and then they come to learn that she was actually a notorious troll who had annoyed and infuriated many other online users through her cruel, vicious trolling activities. It begins to look possible to Ji-woong and Young-min that someone killed her and then made her death look like a suicide, and this possibility looks more plausible as Ji-woong and Young-min join others to search for any useful clues to help their private investigation.
Mainly because it is clear to us how biased they are from the very beginning, we look at their rather clumsy investigation process with a certain amount of skepticism as their conspiracy theory with no solid basis becomes an increasingly (and alarmingly) popular gossip topic around other online users, but the director/screenplay writer Hong Seok-jae steadily maintains the level of intrigue and mystery on the screen. He carefully doles out bits of information to us and his characters one by one, and there are a number of calm but tense moments solely based on the interactions between the main characters and possible suspects through Twitter or other kinds of social network services. The movie further utilizes this simple approach for gut-wrenching emotional effects during one grim scene, and it is eventually followed by the climactic sequence simultaneously ironic and devastating.
The characters in the film are not very likable due to their superficial sides and selfish or unpleasant behaviors, but, Byeon Yo-han, Lee Joo-seung, and other actors in the film look believable in their good performances as banal online users you may come across if you wander around South Korean online communities for several hours. The movie becomes a little more humorous at one point when they happen to confront one of their possible suspects who turns out to be as affluent as he seems on the surface, and it also shows some pity, if not sympathy, to Ha-yeong when Ji-woong and Yong-min come to learn more about her troubling personality through an accidental encounter later in the story.
While there are a number of loose ends along with several predictable turns, “Socialphobia” remains to be a compelling film with thought-provoking subjects, and you may think more seriously about how to deal with online communication after watching this small but impressive work. In case of me, I have been so far comfortable with using my real name for years on Twitter and other online services, and I have been well aware of harms and annoyances on the Internet, but who knows what can possibly happen to me in the virtual space where anything is possible?