The premise of Love Child, HBO’s latest feature-length documentary, doesn’t leave much room for moral questions or shades of grey. It opens with the 2010 story of a South Korean couple who met through an online video game, had a child, then neglected it in favor of playing said game. The baby girl died three months later of malnutrition; the couple found her the morning after they’d spent 10 hours (their typical session length) at a “PC Bang” gamer café.
The aftermath of that story, especially as it’s presented in this film, is pretty cut and dry: babies good, game addiction bad. Thus, this documentary (named after the baby in question, whose name, Sarang, translates to “Love Child”) doesn’t offer many surprises in perspective. It casts a particularly negative light on the gaming world and the rapid expansion of Internet access throughout South Korea.
As a result, the film’s attempts to humanize its subjects—Kim Jae-beom and his wife Kim Yun-jeong—are uneven and hard to swallow. To the filmmakers’ credit, that choice comes off as wholly intentional. Love Child paints the couple’s story in pity and sadness as it tries to make sense of how gaming, technology, and depression combined in a story that, tragically, has become a cornerstone in conversations about its nation.
Gold farmer’s daughter
The film, which debuted on HBO on Monday, July 28, opened with interview footage of the father, filmed shortly after his initial arrest. Kim said he was being held because his baby had died, but when asked why that happened, he didn’t take responsibility. “I’m not sure. She was a premature baby from the beginning.”
Viewers learn more about the death in fits and starts—some TV newsreels, a distraught police officer, the sole journalist at the hearings, the couple’s public defender—and the details got worse every step of the way. The wife, denounced by her family for her choice of a much older husband, had to leave home to stay in the relationship. The couple fell into “gold farming,” meaning they mostly played MMO games for a living (gathering virtual coins in games and selling them for real-world currency).
In many ways, the couple’s sad story boiled down to poverty, like the mother’s malnutrition and inability to go to the hospital at any time during the pregnancy. In others, the issue was sheer negligence, proven by disgusting discoveries like rancid milk bottles.
The Kim story was frequently interspersed with a crash course in South Korea’s progressive Internet infrastructure. Experts and locals alike spoke at great length about a heavy investment in nationwide broadband and the establishment of CDMA networks, but Love Child didn’t poke through the history section with any talk of leaders or political regimes pushing for that investment. As far as Love Child was concerned, someone waved a magic wand and poof: Internet!
But where other news reports and movies tend to film South Korea’s most tech-loaded cityscapes, shining and glistening in a sea of screens and neon, Love Child pulled the camera back with a stress on long, slow shots. Empty hallways, PC Bang lobbies, shopping malls, skyscrapers, and other scenes filled the screen with a stress on inactivity and even desolation. (Lots of blurry, slow-motion security cam footage appeared, as well, including a disturbing shot of Sarang found in her parents’ apartment. While it was blurred, it was still incredibly troubling.)
Sometimes, a blast of upbeat K-Pop music played in contrast to a quiet or somber scene, but for the most part, the soundtrack sounded as dystopian as the scenes looked—especially the film’s odd, semi-animated sequences in which people are rendered as messy bursts of polygons. Assumedly, these were meant to contrast with frequent shots of Prius, the MMORPG that the Kim couple met through and played endlessly.
Reports in 2010 wasted no time in pointing out the central irony of their gaming addiction—namely, that Prius’s quests revolved around taking care of a childlike companion, called Anima, whose powers and skills would change based on how people played the game. To drive this point home, Love Child includes a few lengthy, unedited game sequences. The most troubling one sees the Anima sacrificing itself to keep heroes alive, shouting, “I cannot watch you suffer!” (Minutes later, the Anima returns to assure players that she’ll come back to life “if you earn enough experience points.”)
A different kind of shaman
No case like this had come before South Korean courts, and the Kim family’s lawyer managed to successfully argue that this “involuntary manslaughter” was the result of “gaming addiction,” thus reducing the couple’s sentences.
According to Love Child, the Kims were far from alone in their affliction, counting over two million gaming addicts in the nation. After telling us this—and showing news reports about other deaths attributed to games like Starcraft—the film walked into a gaming addiction therapy center, where one patient wore 3D glasses while watching footage that alternated between nature scenes, gaming videos, and “aversive” content full of screams and glass-shattering sounds. “This makes patients have a more negative attitude toward video games,” a doctor said, but the whole thing looked like a half-baked imitation of Clockwork Orange.
The film’s perspective on games was far removed from the likes of Video Games: The Movie, showing no rowdy, laugh-filled sessions (with the exception of one congratulatory tournament starring Korea’s most popular competitive game, Starcraft). Instead, stone-faced PC Bang customers stared into monitors while doctors commented on the hobby. One doctor said that video games were comforting for the depressed and those who “lack vigor. They become like a hermit, because they do not come from a supportive environment.”
In fact, only one time were games talked about in a decidedly positive light, when a researcher compared Korea’s love of gaming with its religious origins as a shamanistic society, as both invoke the notion of avatars going on great quests against evil-doers. This was followed by the story of a tranquil, peaceful online game designed to cheer the parents of children killed at a school’s fire: “The game’s makers gave all the parents affected by this tragedy an avatar of their child. They could take these avatars for walks around these forever peaceful landscapes.”
The film didn’t have any answers for what Korea could, or should, do in light of continued gaming-addiction stories. Beyond an official designation of gaming as an addictive hobby equivalent to vices like tobacco and alcohol, and a curfew restricting children from playing games between the hours of midnight and 6am, most of the film’s talking heads had no substantial answers to the problem. The consensus was that more research is necessary. (In a striking moment, staffers at a gaming addiction facility admitted to playing hours of games themselves.)
That fit Love Child’s “show, don’t tell” take on the subject, which meant in spite of the generally sad and somber tone, none of the film’s major speakers ever denounced online gaming outright. One PC Bang staffer even became misty-eyed when he recalled the Kim couple falling in love at his shop: “They were so happy lost in this game together.”
That willingness to detach and avoid preachiness—and aim a humble, sad camera on Korea’s tech boom, as opposed to a wide-eyed one—was Love Child’s saving grace. Its biggest stumble, truly, was that by telling a 2010 story of online gaming, the rise of smartphone games has already changed the nature of how players can consume or get addicted to the hobby. Even so, the film’s tight focus on South Korea’s rapid tech explosion, and the culture that has awkwardly grown through it, was timeless enough