In 2010, a tiny and malnourished baby girl died alone in her parents’ cheap apartment in Seoul, South Korea, having grown so weak in her three months on earth that she had actually lost weight since she’d been born. Her mother had participated in no prenatal care. She had last been fed rotten milk. Her parents didn’t call the police until they consulted the Internet for advice. And she had died alone because her parents were in the midst of one of their daily hours-long online gaming sessions that took them away from home. Her name was Sarang. It means “love” in Korean.
The subject of Valerie Veatch’s Love Child may sound vaguely familiar – the story of Sarang Kim and her neglectful parents was minimally reported when it happened, a modern story about the perils of apparent “online gaming addiction” – but the director attempts to delve deeper into what exactly happened, why it happened, what that has to say about the Internet-obsessed culture of South Korea. Unfortunately, despite compelling and timely subject matter, Veatch’s film is a generally flaccid affair, with an already-slim 75-minute runtime bolstered by inessential and repetitive interviews, time-killing establishing shots, and painfully unemotional animations and re-creations.
Love Child starts out promisingly enough, weaving together interviews with involved parties and talking heads, news footage about the case, and respectfully blurred out photographs, yet it does little to expand past that, and it soon becomes woefully obvious that Veatch’s access was severely limited. She never speaks to the Kims or to anyone close to them – the nearest she gets is to their public defender, who speaks about the case as if it was any other, and the guy who sold them their time at the local “PC room” where they gamed. The Kims are ghosts in the film, talked about, talked around, and only showed in fuzzy, blurry, slowed down courtroom footage. Yet Veatch never addresses this lack of information and access, and the film rolls around, repeating material and filling time with random landscape shots.
Left without crucial material to illuminate the ostensible subject matter of the film, Veatch tries to explore what technology in general and online gaming in particular mean to South Korea, giving long form history lessons on the country’s interest in expanding their broadband infrastructure and trying to contextualize addiction itself.
The film also attempts to make connections that are, quite frankly, a stretch. One interviewee even tries to draw parallels between the shamans of South Korea and their rumored ability to journey to hell and the desire for gamers to reach a different dimension in the online world. Most notably, both Love Child and the media that covered the case seem to be oddly enthralled by the reveal that the Kims were obsessed with a game that rewarded players with their own mini avatar – a video game child they could raise inside the context of the game. Sure, it’s a strange twist – two parents couldn’t take care of a real child because they were busy with a virtual one – but Veatch has such little access to deeper information about the couple that it’s impossible to say if that was really a crucial element of the game to them.
For all we know (or at least for all Love Child is able to present), they were more interested in the game’s (terrible) graphics or (oddly dubbed) monster characters. It’s all assumption, and that’s no way to make a compelling documentary.
The Upside: The film has a compelling subject matter that’s more than worth an in-depth look.
The Downside: The film barely fills in crucial details about it story, but instead is filled with repetitive interviews and unnecessary establishing shots; shoddy animation and awkward recreations further add to the sense that its overproduced and undercooked.
On the Side: Director Valerie Veatch previously directed Me at the Zoo, another Sundance film that centered on a compelling Internet-related story.