In 2020, news of a vicious, far-reaching crime rocked South Korea; a crime with hundreds of victims, even more perpetrators, and dire effects and implications. This was also a deeply unusual case: It took place almost exclusively online. Directed by Choi Jin-seong, Netflix’s newest true-crime documentary Cyber Hell: Exposing an Internet Horror recounts these true events and the subsequent gruesome, nail-biting investigation.
The internet horror at hand all started in the so-called “Nth Room,” a private chat space on the messaging app Telegram. A mysterious figure called “Baksa” used Nth Room to phish personal information from mostly underaged women, dox them and then blackmail them into sharing sexually explicit content, which other anonymous members would then purchase using cryptocurrency.
Once Kim Wan, a journalist for the Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh, was tipped off to Baksa’s cruel acts via an anonymous email, he and his team began a mad scramble to expose Baksa and put an end to Nth Room once and for all. Also independently on the task were a group of student journalists, some anonymous hackers and cyber cops.
It is no secret that our society is infatuated with true crime stories. This is why streamers like Netflix produce new crime content fast enough to make your head spin. More often than not, the content is sanitized with an air of familiar, cliffhanger-esque excitement and seductive reenactments. Sometimes, it is even fully dramatized to maximize entertainment (see recent hits The Girl from Plainville and The Staircase). We enjoy these stories because they are both ugly and thrilling, nauseating and exciting. But it is hard to deny that true crime is difficult for many to stomach unless put through a numbing filter of overt TV structure or Colin Firth.
But Cyber Hell doesn’t have these filters, and it would be a disservice to its material if it did. This is not the kind of true-crime doc that audiences are used to. It’s dark, unflinching and deeply disturbing. A majority of it is spent with people plainly describing the torture a number of young girls underwent at the hands of a group of sadistic men. There are also recreations of victims getting sucked into phishing schemes on Telegram, with messages quickly popping up as if it’s all happening in real time—reminiscent of a slow-motion car-wreck that you can do nothing to stop. The tone reflects the content, and while this undoubtedly makes Cyber Hell an uncomfortable watch, it certainly makes an impact, too.
Of course, this isn’t all that Cyber Hell has to offer. There are also moments that give us a much-needed break from this raw, violent material: Dramatized vignettes, including a woman floating in the water, and colorful city animations. These kinds of scenes appear often in documentaries, and here they are effective in helping emphasize a dark and foreboding tone.
But this film doesn’t necessarily ask for tone-assistants that take such a generic shape. Cyber Hell starts on a chat screen, and by minute three of the film, we have watched a successful phishing scheme take place. As I watched the scam unfold, I almost wondered if this was going to be an entirely interface-based experience, like the doc version of Screen Life films like Unfriended or Searching. This doesn’t end up being the case, which is probably for the better, because interviews with Wan and other journalists are fascinating in their own right, and do an excellent job of highlighting the moral murkiness rampant in pursuing a case like this—especially when its assailants are threatening to harm their victims if you go public with their story.
However, the initial presence of the interface does call into question whether internet-based images would be a more suitable substitution for dramatizations or animations. Indeed, in a documentary about the horrors of the internet, what could possibly be more terrifying than being brought back to, well…the internet?
But for the most part, Cyber Hell’s storyline is streamlined and effective. There is a slight issue in the English subtitle department, however—the translations often appear midway through a sentence, which messes with the film’s otherwise meticulous pacing. The subtitles also frequently switch from the bottom and the top of the screen, which leaves the viewer in danger of missing some important things. But if you’re able to overlook these technical indiscretions (you do get used to it after a while), you’re in for a sobering and horrifying ride, told plainly and serenely. Cyber Hell highlights a dark, terrifying reality that we are all susceptible to simply by existing on the internet, without exploiting it. It plays with our expectations of true crime media, too—and if it makes you question the ease with which we consume most true-crime content, that might just be a valuable bonus.
Director: Choi Jin-seong
Writers: Choi Jin-seong
Release Date: May 18, 2022 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.