MIFF2014: Web Junkie

web junkie 1With so many good films at the Melbourne International Film Festival, there is bound to be a film that would fail to ‘click’ with me. There is so much potential for this film to milk this topic of internet addiction but all it provides is a very small glimpse into a boot camp in China and the angry teens locked up inside without any insight into the social problem as a whole.

Sure we joke about being addicted to the web all the time. Heck, we once called Blackberries “Crackberries’ because people just couldn’t get off their beloved phones! Aside from the folks that spend too much time watching porn online, we don’t really see the constant use of the internet as an addiction. Does constantly checking our Facebook and Twitter count towards being addicted to the interwebs? Is posting a picture on Instagram on a daily basis a problem? We might not think this is an issue, but the Chinese government has thought otherwise. China has declared ‘internet addiction’ as a clinical disorder and has constructed many rehab centres to help cleanse these people of this so-called ‘electronic heroin’. Filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medala look into this ‘internet addiction’ phenomenon and gives us an inside peek at one of the rehab centres (Daxing Boot Camp in Beijing) in hopes to shed some light into how these places operate and to look into the mindset of the internet addicts.

web junkie 2The Daxing facility is run by Dr. Tao, who is usually decked out in uniform and delivers lectures to the younglings and their parents. His methods to help reform the kids include family discussions, solitary confinement, daily exercise and more. Most of the kids are not admitted into the facility by choice. In fact, they are most likely tricked (or drugged) into going there by their parents as a last resort. Most of the teens are high school dropouts and spend most of their time at internet cafes. They hardly have social interaction and lack friends in the real world. In fact, most of their comrades are online buddies and for one them, he scored an online girlfriend! With all these socially inept individuals thrown into close proximity, they are forced to interact with other human beings. Turns out these interactions are what makes up for the most interesting aspects of the film. It was rather sad and somewhat disturbing to see these boys take pride in who’s got the longest World of Warcraft binge.

The parents of these teens talk openly and cry over their failure to control their sons. Meanwhile their sons are resentful and are united in their hatred of their time in the institution. The teens are at the stage in their life where they simply hate everything in the world. They don’t see anything wrong with their behaviour. Put them all together into the same area, groupthink kicks in and they all believe that Dr. Tao and their parents are out to get them.

web junkie 3One of the film’s problems is that it doesn’t quite paint a full picture of the institutions. In the film, there are clearly girls that were also sent in by their parents but we never know about their stories. While Web Junkie is bold enough to provide a small glimpse into this ‘internet addiction’ phenomenon, it fails to answer any of the important questions. Does the rehab program truly work? The one case where a kid gets out of the facility seemingly reformed didn’t look convincing at all.  Is internet addiction just an acute problem or is it more widespread? Could this ‘internet addiction’ be a possible side-effect of the one child policy in China? It is merely an observational film and does not address the details of what makes up this disorder known as ‘internet addiction’.

Interestingly enough, the teens focused on in this film had communication issues. Like the subjects themselves, the film also failed to communicate to the audience. There is so much that could be drawn from the topic of internet addiction and the methods used to cure this problem. Web Junkies merely scratches the surface and never digs deep enough to get us to care. The film is so scattershot that we lose focus on the three primary teens of this film. We are supposed to care about what happens to them, yet at the end of the film, I never got the impression at all. At a brisk running time of 76 minutes, it ends so abruptly, there is no resolve at all for the people featured in the film.

Rating: C

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