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"Retweetable, if not a favorite."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The inciting incident of "Socialphobia" is never shown on-screen, just the social-media reaction to it, and that sort of feels right. It's easy to get caught up in something online without having been there at the start, or because of who is arguing on one side, and filmmaker Hong Seok-jae wants to make a point about how this arbitrariness can have disastrous effects. He does fairly well with the online culture, I think, though the real-world sleuthing could use some work.

That first incident is an army deserter hanging himself in a hotel room, garnering sympathy from many,but not @infernosister, who adds her opinion to seemingly every Twitter thread. Smartphone-addicted college student Ha Yong-min (Lee Ju-seung) is flaming her right back,and gets roommate Kim Ji-woong (Byeon Yo-han) to join in. They hook up with "Mr. Babble", who has found her name and nearby address, and organizes a live-streamed visit. When the dozen or so guys arrive, though, she's hanging from the ceiling by an ethernet cable around her neck. The police rule it a suicide, but Ji-woong finds it fishy enough to look closer, while Yong-min figures it's beneficial to investigate because they're studying to be police officers and just being at the scene may have killed their post-graduation job prospects unless they solve the case. And while their inquiries lad to other suspects - and alleged rapist and a StarCraft forum moderator she had sparred with online under another alias - it may also be a way of avoiding a more important question.

That question, of course, is that of what if Min Ha-young did commit suicide. Ji-woong is the one who must confront it most directly, and it's one of actor Byeon Yo-han's best scenes in the film, mostly silent contemplation of what portion of guilt one admittedly harsh tweet among hundreds and being half-dragged into increasing the size of a "real life PKing" mob assigns him. That silence helps the scene work in the abstract,which might otherwise have been difficult, coming as it does after the viewer has learned enough of the characters that they can't quite be thought of as "The Troll", "The Cyber-Stalker", etc., anymore. It's one of Hong's greatest strengths in the film - being fairly young, he understands the material well enough to approach it with individual characters rather than just stumbling over the ideas. It is still worth noting that the only two women in the movie of any consequence are the victim and a former classmate who fills in her backstory, and Hong does not make much mention of this. Maybe sex has not been as much of a factor in online harassment in South Korea as it has elsewhere, but it seems like an oversight on the filmmakers' parts, especially since so much of what he shows feels right rather than over-sensationalized.

Still, the bigger trouble comes as Ji-woong and Yong-min try to solve the mystery. It involves some pretty brazen theft and breaking and entering (although maybe just "entering", as it doesn't look like anybody locked the apartment up after Ha-young's death), which is probably not going to help in their stated goal as being seen as police material. Much of the action happens off-screen, and a lot of scenes tend to be overpopulated with redundant characters - a "mob" just big enough to threatening at the start winds up causing a fair amount of "wait, who's this? is he important?" later on. Often, what works for the mystery doesn't quite match up with what works with the rest.

Still, the film at least has a couple nice performances by Byeon Yo-han and Lee Ju-seng. At certain points, they do fall a little victim to the redundant characters thing themselves - if you're just following subtitles while they're talking off-screen, one can lose track of who's pushing who - but in some ways the similarities makes the difference that develop even more telling. Byeon brings a quieter intensity to Ji-woong, seeming determined rather than obsessed, and Lee is able to spark scenes nicely. The rest of the cast may be crowded, but has room for a few standouts, like Jeon Sin-hwan as a guy who looks like the prime suspect and Park Keun-Rok as the one who explains Ha-young to the boys.

It's worth noting that the Korean Academy of Film Arts has its name on "Socialphobia" as it does a number of other first features, and as such this film should probably be considered as much in terms of Hong's potential as anything else. That's pretty good - he's telling a story for his internet-native generation in an assured manner, even if there is room for improvement. If nothing else, it's a decent take on the potential ugliness of online culture that doesn't feel like an outsider scolding, which you seldom see done this well.

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originally posted: 08/10/15 06:24:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Seok-jae Hong

Written by
  Seok-jae Hong

  Yo-han Byeon
  Joo-seung Lee

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