The footage from the security camera is grainy and distorted, but the baby’s appearance is unmistakable. The three-month-old girl lies rigid underneath a blanket, her body disturbingly small compared to the size of her head. Her unnaturally stiff legs — pitiably thin — peek out. The view of the room is limited from the overhead angle, but from what we can see, the surroundings are meager.
Her name was Sarang, and she died due to malnutrition. Her parents had neglected to feed her, as they played online games all night at a PC cafe. Sarang, which means “love” in Korean, subsequently starved to death.
The case made headlines in South Korea, serving as a cautionary tale of an emerging digital age, fueling the debate over the nature of online addiction, as well as the moral failure of parenting.
Sarang’s death also rippled abroad, where outlets played up the tech aspect and subtly emphasized the “only in Asia” angle — South Korea as a sci-fi dystopia of hyper-connectivity gone awry.
“It stuck out in my head because it felt like a poignant moment, where the virtual world is distinctly and acutely represented as a factor in the real world,” Valerie Veatch, a documentarian, told Yahoo. “The collapse between those two spaces felt like it would be a really interesting story to try and tell. In the process of telling it, I could explore the themes and aspects of the way technology is impacting our society.”
So Veatch decided to make a film, to explore not just the people involved, but the larger societal transformation that made the case possible. The result: the documentary “Love Child,” which premiered at Sundance and is broadcast on HBO.
Love Child combines news-style interviews with visual footage of modern South Korea to create a dreamlike echo chamber of ideas. It doesn’t provide neat, tidy explanations for the tragedy, but prompts questions of just how close we’re edging as we ourselves become increasingly wired and connected as a society.
After Kim Yoo-Chul and his common-law wife Choi Mi-Sun realized baby Sarang was dead, they tried to arrange a funeral service themselves, before realizing they needed to contact the authorities to do so.
Once the police saw the frail baby, however, they became suspicious of neglect and ordered an autopsy, revealing a death caused by malnutrition. When authorities issued a warrant for the parents’ arrest, they fled to an isolated village where their parents lived. Eventually, as the police closed in, the couple gave themselves up.
Investigators were shocked by the their behavior. “The couple seemed to have lost their will to live a normal life, because they didn’t have jobs and gave birth to a premature baby,” Chung Jin-Won, a police officer in Suwon, the Seoul suburb, told the Yonhap news agency.
The couple plead guilty, and was arraigned for murder. But their court-appointed lawyer argued for a lesser sentence, claiming the Internet addiction was a mitigating factor in the case, similar to drug or alcohol addiction.
Korean law allows criminal sentences to be adjusted for such factors that impair normal judgment. But this was the first time that Internet addiction — already a complicated, controversial and much debated diagnosis — was used in a court of law. In some ways, it was the first time online addiction was taken seriously as a disorder on a global stage.
Beyond the facts, media discussion around the case was fascinating. Many condemned the mother as unnatural, asking how such a so-called natural instinct could be lacking in a woman — or how it could be perverted by something like online gaming. “The mainstream news media coverage of this story vilified the young mother — shaming her as if motherhood should be inherently hard-wired into the female psyche,” Veatch told Filmmaker.
But the film complicates the matter beyond moral condemnation. It emphasizes that both husband and wife were very poor and uneducated. They themselves were small, skinny and underfed people, according to the lawyer who worked with them, and probably thought the baby’s scrawny appearance was normal. They had very limited knowledge of how to care for an infant.
“They struck me as being a rather pathetic pair of people,” Andrew Salmon, one of the few non-Asian journalists to cover the story, told the filmmakers. “They’d clearly fallen through the cracks of society.”
Neither the mother nor the baby received any checkups. In fact, she didn’t seek out a hospital or a doctor until it was time to deliver the baby. According to investigators interviewed in the movie, the couple was “completely ignorant” of how to raise a child, even feeding her spoiled milk. The lack of knowledge was partly emotional malaise, but also due to their poverty.
They were also profoundly isolated from any familial or social structure. Due to the couple’s age gap, the woman’s parents disapproved of the relationship. They had been living with parents, but were kicked out for excessive gaming.
Subsequently, they moved to Seoul, where they had no jobs, family or friends. In a society that emphasizes tight family and social bonds, the couple’s isolation — combined with poverty and a lack of education — proved disastrous in one of the world’s most expensive, technologically-advanced cities. They only had one place of refuge — the PC gaming cafe.
Many people living in poverty and social isolation, however, manage to raise children to adulthood to varying degrees of success. Why would this couple callously leave their child to play online games at a Internet cafe all night? Is online addiction that serious of an affliction?
The film not only looks to the Kims’ personal circumstances to answer these questions, but examines how they were caught up in a larger technological wave that quickly transformed the social and economic fabric of South Korean society.
In the mid-90s, South Korea was behind most of the world when it came to Internet infrastructure. But the government decided to take a big gamble at the turn of the century, and invested significant sums to beef up its networks to the most modern technology. As a result, the country became one of the most wired, connected societies, with one of the fastest, most extensive networks in the world.
The investment paid off, making a huge economic impact, and giving boosts to its smartphone, gaming, display screen, computer parts and other IT-related industries. South Korea became the world’s most advanced information economy, and the Internet economy eventually made up almost seven percent of the GNP, according to the film. The country became a global player on the increasingly prominent tech industry.
On the ground level, early on, Koreans enjoyed the fruits of high-speed Internet, with widespread phone ownership and the rise of gaming, which quickly moved from a hobby to a full-fledged billion-dollar sport.
The film offers an intriguing explanation for why South Koreans in particular embraced gaming. The country, the film explains, has a deep-rooted, ancient history of shamanism, in which psychic mediums help people travel and communicate with alternate spirit realms. Gaming — particularly within immersive multi-player environments with complex levels — resembles this process, helping users occupy different psychological states.
But gaming also caught on for social and economic reasons, as well. It became a powerful source of income for top players, who could win huge prizes in tournaments. The government also made it legal to sell virtual currency gained in games for real money, a practice called “gold farming.”
To accommodate the growing appetite for gaming, large PC cafes, called “PC bangs,” sprung up for those who wanted fast connections and equipment, but couldn’t afford to buy it for themselves.
Sarang’s parents had spent countless hours in PC bangs even before they met. In fact, the wife’s mother would take her to PC bangs to meet prospective husbands, according to Scientific American, and eventually Sarang’s mother met her partner within the confines of a multi-player game. The girl’s parents eventually disapproved of the relationship, but it eventually progressed into a common-law marriage. So when they moved to Seoul, all they did was play games at the PC bang.
“They were so happily lost in this game together,” a PC cafe employee interviewed in the movie remembers.
They were avid players of “Prius,” a highly-involved multi-level fantasy game. A key to the game involves raising an online virtual fairy child, called an “anima,” that helps players advance in play with spells and potions. Player and anima work together to complete quests and gain items. Meanwhile, the child’s personality adapts and changes with each interaction as her “parent” cares for and nurtures her. Ironically, Sarang’s parents left their baby night after night to languish in hunger and deprivation, as they spent hours at the PC bang to raise a virtual child.
Prius was a popular game, and no doubt the game itself was highly addictive in nature — the way games are designed to be by their designers. People respond to the emotional content, especially when it comes to role playing games — the “anima” or similar “pet” features in games, for example, broadens a game’s appeal to women.
Beyond the hypnotic fantasy nature of the games they played, Sarang’s parents had more practical reasons for spending their nights at the 24-hour PC bangs. It was cheaper for them to buy up large blocks of time to play, rather than play just for a few hours a day. Gaming was also their only source of income — they would play enough to accumulate prized items, which they sold off to impatient, less accomplished players for real money. Gaming was essentially their job, and they put in all-night shifts.
The film does a solid job illuminating South Korea’s technological rise — and how the Kims were swept up in this rapid shift. But it fails to give a more complete understanding of the psychology that would allow them to neglect their child. Considering that online and gaming addiction were the center of their legal defense, Love Child is slightly opaque about the Kims’ own addiction, and the nature of tech addictions in general.
Part of the reason is the film’s own creative strategies — Love Child doesn’t interview the parents directly, partly to preserve their anonymity, so they’re unable to explain in their own words their state of mind. The result is a film that sometimes feels abstract and distant from the very people it wants us to understand most.
The documentary tries to compensate partly by interviewing experts in the field of online addiction, but the explanations for how and why people become addicted to games is fairly thin, saying addicts “lacked vigor” in life, were bored or depressed. Games were their only comfort, giving them a sense of reward or accomplishment in an otherwise unstimulating or unsupportive environment.
The film does go into the world of treating online addiction, but the glimpse it offers is more fitting to a sci-fi movie than to a serious documentary. Inside a treatment facility, a gamer wears a specially fitted headset, where he’s subjected first to relaxing visual footage. Once relaxed, he begins watching gaming footage, which then gets interrupted by harsh, abrasive sounds and images. The intent, a nearby scientist explains, is to retrain the addict’s brain to see gaming as an unpleasant experience.
Online addictions are only just beginning to be taken seriously in the scientific community. Many experts, according to Polygon, believe games themselves aren’t addictive — excessive gameplay is actually a sign of a deeper issue like depression or anxiety. Still, games are designed to be highly engaging, and that engagement can lead to obsessive behavior.
Love Child does point out that the brains of online addicts resemble their alcoholic and drug-addicted counterparts. In online activities, according to The Atlantic, reaching a goal or reward, or completing a quest, often excites the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain. These neurons release dopamine, which creates a sensation of pleasure.
Dopamine is often the basis for addictions, such as nicotine, cocaine and gambling. While drugs like cocaine offer huge jolts of dopamine, gambling and online gaming make up for the lack of intensity with frequency — a user can simply keep going back for more, obsessed with getting the next dose to the exclusion of everything else.
While the midbrain is looking for constant hits of dopamine, other sections of the brain shrink or atrophy. According to Newsweek, the sections of the brain responsible for speech, memory, motor control and emotion shrink 10 to 20 percent. What’s more, the longer an online addict spent gaming or playing on the Internet, the more those parts of his brain shrunk.
This might explain the apathetic, unemotional nature of the parents when faced with Sarang’s death. “A typical parent would weep in this situation, but they showed no emotion,” the investigator remembers in the documentary.
This also could explain how the Kims could “disassociate” enough from reality to recognize signs that their real-life daughter was slowly starving to death. Their perception likely restructured itself in such a way as to be unable to “read” signs of distress or emotion anymore. The filmmakers speculate they were so accustomed to the interface and stimulation of the online game that they failed to understand their human daughter, who lacked the “interface” to communicate her needs to her parents.
Maybe Sarang was simply not “virtual” enough for her parents to understand — a chilling comment on just how much a game or a technological environment can reshape our human emotions, responses and perceptions.
Those who watch Love Child can’t often help but wonder if it’s a sign of what’s to come as our own countries become increasingly wired and wireless.
“The factors that have led to the kind of immensely immersive online gaming world in Korea can — and are — being replicated here in the U.S.,” Veatch told online magazine Death and Taxes, referring to the rise of high speed internet, large immersive displays and other factors.
Since Love Child wrapped, the U.S. has seen its own case of gaming-related child neglect. Mark Knapp and Elizabeth Pester of Tulsa, for example, were so addicted to their virtual existence on Second Life that they neglected their two-year-old daughter, who wasted away to just 13 pounds. When police came to arrest Knapp and Pester for abuse, they were both busy playing the virtual reality game.
Online addiction is increasingly taken seriously as a real disorder and mental health issue, though. “Online gaming/Internet addiction can be an extremely political issue in Korea,” Veatch told Asian-American magazine Hyphen. “For example, the Korean government is considering taxing Korean gaming companies [to help pay for Internet addiction treatment programs.]”
The government also passed laws to prevent underage gamers from playing after midnight into the odd hours of the morning, although the film points out that gaming companies only more intensely target their marketing efforts towards adults as a result. They are also funding more clinics and centers to treat online addictions.
In the U.S., the American Psychiatric Association decided last year to include “Internet-use disorder” as a condition “recommended for further study” in the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, paving the way for serious study and official diagnosis.
In the end, documentaries like Love Child expand our growing understanding and awareness of the way technology can shape and alter us in ways we don’t expect. But Love Child is less a definitive, in-depth examination than a springboard of fascinating, loosely connected ideas ripe for further discussion and thinking, especially as we spend more time tethered to our devices and worry about the effect connectivity has on our selves and our relationships.
In the end, the Kims were deeply ashamed of their child’s neglect and seemed to understand their culpability in the situation. They received shortened sentences — the husband spent two years in jail, while the wife didn’t serve time, but received a suspended three-year sentence.
In a “twist” ending, the couple conceived a second child together at the time of their trial, which they swore they would raise correctly this time. The film itself ends there, leaving the audience with a strange, ironic note.
There is more to the story beyond the screen, however. The couple vowed to authorities to never play another game again and moved from Seoul, and actively seek the help of friends and families in raising their new daughter, who they named Autumn.
Veatch and her team visited the family in their new apartment and reported to Yahoo that it was clean, cheerful and neat, and that the baby was thriving. “We visited them, and the baby is beautiful and healthy. They were not really in a place to take care of a baby the first time they had one, so the second time they’re working really hard,” Veatch said. “They’re poor, but their house is sweet and it’s clean. You get a good sense that they’re taking really good care of themselves and the baby.”
Veatch made a choice not to include this epilogue in Love Child. It might have made for a more uplifting “happier” ending — but it might have simplified and offered emotional closure on an issue that deserves to remain a topic of debate and discussion, especially as our lives become increasingly wired, and transformed in the process. ♦