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'Love Child' Review and the Troublesome Case of Online Gaming Addiction and Infant Homicide

By Seth Freilich | Film | March 12, 2014 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | March 12, 2014 |

The story behind Love Child is dark, so let’s just rip the band-off and get into it. In 2010, a severely undercared-for South Korean infant died of starvation/malnutrition because her parents were too busy spending all-nighters at a local video game shop, playing an online RPG. It’s a terrible, tragic story, and when you see crime photos of the conditions poor baby Sarang Kim was found in — on a dirty mattress in a basement, a bowl of milk left by her side — you hate everything about humanity. The outcome of the Kim’s trial does not do much to restore your faith in humanity; while they were convicted of manslaughter (rather than murder, because of the lack of intent), Sarang’s mother served no time, and her father got but one year.

The reason for their short sentences is because the Kims argued, and the judge accepted, that their online gaming addiction was a mitigating factor akin to other forms of physical or mental illness and warranted a reduced sentence. This was a landmark case, featuring the first documented incidence of gaming addiction leading to a death, and of particular import in South Korea, where online gaming is a shockingly large part of the cultural landscape. Love Child tell the story of Sarang and her neglectful parents and attempts to investigate gaming addiction, both in terms of how it has come to be and how the nation of South Korea is trying to deal with it. Unfortunately, despite having this tragic story as its backbone and depth of interesting topics surrounding this tragedy, Love Child is a poorly executed mess of a film.

The documentary hits most of the beats that it is supposed to hit. Love Child looks a little at why South Korea has seen such an explosion of online gaming, from the government’s massive 1990s investment in broadband to a cultural love of communal activity. While it does not really touch on the Kim’s past, it does show the depths of their gaming addiction - addicted to a game called Prius, they met in the game, they played in PC rooms all night, and their only source of income was gold mining in the game and then selling the game-gold for real cash money. It explains this Prius game that so enraptured the Kims, including the irony that much of the game is focused on obtaining and caring for something called an Anima, a child-like avatar. It looks at the nation’s debate on how to deal with the growing epidemic of gaming addiction, from laws banning children from playing between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m., to the sentiment that the country “needs solutions, not laws,” to internet addiction clinics, which use a mix of therapy videos and aversion therapy. And it interviews the right people, including the investigating detective, the Kim’s public defender, and the British journalist who was the primary English-language investigator of the story.

And yet, Love Child is all over the place. There are a host of 80s-style digital interstitials that, I think, are supposed to be visually interesting but wind up a distraction. There is also an extensive and heavy-handed use of clips from the Prius game. At only 75 minutes, the film is surprisingly loaded with filler and lacks any real focus, exemplified by a bizarre diversion about Korean religions and shamans. Rather than exploring the national debate about the value of recognizing gaming addiction as a disease and how to cope with it, we are instead treated to a barely-informative flurry of new clips. Rather than really digging into the story and the themes, director Valerie Veatch (directing her second documentary, following 2012’s Me at the Zoo, a weird documentary about internet “star” Chris Crocker) seems more interested in trying to put together a visually hip documentary and the resulting product is an unfocused mess. Love Child doesn’t give enough information to allow the viewer to come to a proper conclusion on the validity of treating gaming addiction as an illness, nor does it present enough on trying to address the problem of this addiction (illness or otherwise). Ultimately, the documentary may be named for Sarang (which means “love”), but it fails to do right by her tragic story.

Love Child premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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