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Review: 'Love Child' looks at online addiction in South Korea
Sundance doc puts an unspeakable tragedy in cultural context
I don't know if Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia's "Web Junkie" is the perfect complement to Valerie Veatch's "Love Child" or if "Love Child" is the perfect complement to "Web Junkie," but I know that a being able to intellectually pair the two documentaries is one of the biggest advantages to this year's Sundance Film Festival programming obsession with the dangers of the Internet.
Of course, once audiences get away from Park City, it's unlikely that "Web Junkie" and "Love Child" are going to be viewable in tandem. "Love Child" is an HBO Films documentary and thus will get visibility through the premium cable giant, while HBO, unlikely Sundance, will probably be discerning enough to think that programming two documentaries on Asian countries and their explorations of the notion of Internet addiction might be overkill.
That wouldn't be exactly true.
It turns out that while "Web Junkie" lacked, "Love Child" confidently delivers, while what "Love Child" lacks is the thing "Web Junkie" does best. With careful editing, the two docs could be melded into one emotional and authoritative documentary on a captivating subject, but then you'd have a three-hour movie. [I'll be completing The Oy Vey The Internet Is Freaky Trilogy with "The Internet's Own Boy" tomorrow evening. I suspect it will be sufficiently its own thing that it will stand alone. We'll see!]
Click through for my full review of "Love Child," which is going up against "Web Junkie" in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance…
The story behind "Love Child" will likely initially disgust you. In 2010, a South Korean couple was arrested after their three-month-old baby died of malnutrition while they were out playing an online game. Much is made of the irony that the role-playing game that was taking their attention, titled Prius, asked players to raise and nurture virtual children, called "animas."
The first inclination is to want to throttle the negligent parents, but most of the featured subjects in "Love Child" have a sentiment that verges on sympathy. The defense's approach in the case was to argue that online addiction was a mitigating factor in the death, just as addictions to drug or alcohol would be taken into consideration when pondering a just sentence.
"Web Junkie" was the first movie I reviewed at Sundance this year. It looked at a number of patients and counselors at the Chinese Teenagers Mental Growth Center, one of the more than 400 Rehab camps for Internet Addiction Disorder. I liked "Web Junkie," particularly how it was able to focus closely on the individual stories told by several of the addicts, depicting their problems with parents and authority figures. You came away with a sense of the people impacted by this problem, even if you didn't reach a definitive conclusion on just how dangerous Internet addiction might be. My own reading of "Web Junkie" was that no matter the clinical nature of the condition, most of the cases being treated in China were probably addiction coupled with a new name being placed upon a more traditional generational and cultural divide.
Well, with "Love Child," there's never any doubt on the danger. The story begins with a dead baby and it's repeated multiple time that the baby's name, Sarang, means "Love." Unfortunately, despite that almost soul-crushing gravity, the human faces of "Love Child" are quite literally blurred. Veatch's last Sundance doc, HBO's "Me @ The Zoo," was built entirely around its access to the main character, but "Love Child" has to be built around the absence of that central access. Key attorneys and police officers in the case are available, but they're pieces within the system. A clerk at the cyber cafe frequented by the couple is interviewed. Medical professionals involved in South Korea's own investigations into online addiction give their opinions, without having met the couple. A game developer talks about the relationship between games and players, but not with specific linkages to the main couple. At the center, there's a notable gap, a gap that includes anybody with even a loose personal relationship to the main couple.
It's not like I'm shocked by this absence. The couple's lack of personal connections is a key part of their story and their addiction, while nobody would necessarily expect them to want to -- or be able to -- give all access to a filmmaker, much less an American filmmaker. Still, it's a notable absence. Even if the investigating detective or defense attorney take pains to note that they're parents themselves, they're parts of the system and not human faces to a tragedy.
So "Love Child" struggles where "Web Junkie" succeeded, but my biggest problem with "Web Junkie" was its lack of interest in getting to the root of what I call "The China of it All," the cultural context that explained why this particular approach to a problem was happening in that particular country. In context, "Web Junkie" does a spectacular job of establishing a plausible and understandable context that is specific to South Korea on all levels.
Using reporter Andrew Salmon as a featured talking head, Veatch goes into depth on South Korea's extensive national investments in broadband infrastructure and IT concerns, making it one of the world's most tech-forward countries. That's put in contrast to South Korea's more traditional communal cultures, leading to a rise in PC Bang clubs and online role-playing games. The game developer talks about the importance of creating online emotional connections between users and building empathy between players and their avatars. The movie delves into the importance of the family unit in Korean culture and the alienation between Sarang's parents and their own families and the isolation that would cause. It covers the economic realities in which some video game players have the resources of professional athletes and the real world marketplace for certain online currency. There's even an attempt to tie the issue into South Korea's religious culture, an attempt that feels like a bit of a reach, but an interesting reach.
If "Web Junkie" wasn't interested in specifically situating its treatment facilities within 21st Century Chinese culture, "Love Child" shows why online addiction might be a problem in South Korea and goes into depth on the very different ways the country is attempting to confront or understand the condition. There are, in fact, no similarities at all between South Korea's approach to this condition and what we saw in China and now I want a longer, more context-filled version of "Web Junkie" even more.
There's a strong possibility that the decision to concentrate on the world of statistics and context over flash-and-blood emotions was a calculated decision. The favoring of the virtual world over the real world is an aesthetic decision as well. Prius, the game that The Couple favored over parenting, plays a big on-screen role in "Love Child," with Veatch taking paints to depict the dramatic moments that might make the game so enticing. The documentary also uses what the filmmakers are calling "computational photograghy" to recontextualize living people into a virtual space that isn't as artistically rendered as what you'd find in a video game, but still makes a distinctive real/virtual contrast.
"Love Child" never attempts to cheapen the tragedy of Sarang's death, but like "Web Junkie," it wants to lay out a pattern of behavior that might seem a little extreme, but also won't feel that outlandish to anybody who counts the Internet among the spaces in which they feel most social. You won't forgive The Couple in "love child," but you'll understand the environment that helped set the tragedy in motion and maybe you'll look at your own online-heavy environment in a different way.