This review was originally published during Sundance on January 22, 2014. It is being reposted now the the film is premiering on HBO.
In 2010, a three-month-old baby named Sarang (“love”) died in South Korea. She starved to death, neglected by her parents, who both spent the better part of their days playing online games. Stunningly, both parents received rather light punishment. The court accepted the defense that both mother and father suffered from “Internet addiction.” This situation could be the springboard for a documentary full of righteous outrage at the system and these people. But Love Child takes a different tack, one of sensitivity. And because of that, it’s all the more heartbreaking and unnerving.
The film pulls back to look at the broader context for these events. South Korea has the most advanced Internet infrastructure in the world, and the film suggests that the collectivist inclinations of the Korean people have led to a great many enthusiastically diving into full-time connectivity. In very few other places in the world can one make a legitimate living playing video games. Sarang’s parents’ sole source of income was “farming” in various online games, selling virtual power-ups for real-world cash.
In an extra burn of irony, the couple’s favorite game was Prius Online, which centered its gameplay around the care of a digital child. Clips from the game play sporadically throughout Love Child, often coming off as surreal, given that they are not in any context. But thematically, each clip bolsters the somber mood. One scene has the game child, the “Anima,” being snatched away before the player’s eyes, in eerie parallel with Sarang’s story.
Ultimately, Love Child is not so much about this one death as it is the culture that produced it. We are in a transitional period between a society that will be fully connected and one that was not. Some are lost in the shift. Sarang’s parents were more than just neglectful. They seem completely incompetent, having to consult the Internet to find out what to do after they discover their child’s body. Other South Korean interviewees in the film attest to their own heavy usage of the Internet, and how much their practical knowledge has suffered as a result.
Much of Love Child feels oneiric. Besides the integration of video game cutscenes, it uses long pauses of urban landscapes and quick-cutting montages of web-related imagery to set its mood. The movie is all about the blurring line between reality and virtuality. It seeks to disorient us even as it educates us.
Some may scoff at the idea of “Internet addiction,” but it has a very strong possibility of showing up in the next edition of the DSM. Already in South Korea, clinics have been set up to help heavy Internet users wean themselves off their computers. A case similar to Sarang’s occurred in Tulsa not long ago, in which a couple was so busy playing Second Life that their child went unfed. The Internet has improved the world in many ways, but there are always unintended side effects of any major cultural upheaval. The most chilling part of Love Child is the suggestion that Sarang’s death might not be exceptional, but merely the first of its kind.
Love Child debuts on HBO tonight at 9pm ET and will be available on HBO On Demand and HBO GO afterward.