By Pierce Conran
The Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) returns to Busan with Socialphobia, a new work that is equal parts social drama and murder mystery. Examining the disruptive effect of communication in the digital era within a society where the slightest bit of gossip can take on a life of its own, this debut film showcases Hong Seok-jae's assiduous combination of genre tropes and subtext.
When a young man serving in the military takes his life, an anonymous internet user makes light of his death. A group of youths decide to confront her, first meeting in an internet cafe and then making their way to her home, meanwhile recording the whole process live for all to see. With the door wide open, the group ventures into her home, only to find a corpse hanging from the ceiling. Two of the men, who are studying to enter the police force, suspect foul play and take it upon themselves to discover what really happened.
Jumping straight into the dizzying arena of modern digital communication, Socialphobia benefits from a youthful cast that buzzes with a nervous energy within the nebulous sphere of social media. The film's driving theme, that of the ironic disconnect and cyber bullying suffered by youths in modern Korean society, is a timely one and yet it never quite hits its strides. What makes it work is the tight plotting that deftly draws us into an unexpected murder mystery and the careful balancing act performed between the film's genre leanings and its clear, if slight, social message.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the film suffers from its onscreen representation of the many social media messages that litter the frame. Like many other contemporary filmmakers, Hong has trouble coming up with an effective way of showing these messages. While he refrains from close-up shots of people's phone screens as they type, the way the messages pop up on the screen with a ping on the soundtrack soon becomes distracting.
Socialphobia builds up a considerable amount of momentum in its first act as it introduces its characters and themes, and plunges them into a investigative narrative. However, Hong can't keep this up for long and the narrative slows considerably when it opts to focus on its protagonists during the midsection. Though this stimulates some effective character development, it does so at the expense of the thrust that allows the film to get off to such a strong start. Following some obligatory flashbacks, the film does get back on track, weaving its way to a satisfying conclusion.
Following last year's Busan indie Shuttlecock and the recent revenge thriller Broken, Lee Ju-seung, delivers another convincing performance as a bratty youth acting out as he finds himself unable to connect with the world around him. Playing the other lead is Byun Yo-han, from last year's Tinker Tinker, another KAFA project, who is equally effective as the more straight-edged but very much conflicted police trainee.
With a long history at the Busan International Film Festival (Bleak Night, 2010; Your Time Is Up, 2012; Guardian), the Korean Academy of Film Arts' feature film production program, which is supported by both the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) and CJ Entertainment, delivers another effective genre film, with modestly budgeted but impressive production values and a sustained thread of social consciousness with Socialphobia.
Coincidentally, Hong's film is one of two playing at Busan (the other is the lamentable and offensive Live TV) that features youths, the dark side of social media and live internet broadcasts.
This review originally appeared on Twitchfilm.com
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).