In 2010, a 3-month-old baby named Sarang died of malnutrition while her parents were out of the house. The two were at a local Internet cafe, binge-playing a game called Prius Online, in which they were tasked with raising a virtual child.
The couple, who met online through the game, fled out of fear but were eventually captured by the local authorities and tried for the murder of their child. After a series of mental-health tests and interviews, the court ultimately ruled that they were not guilty of murdering their child, because they couldn’t distinguish the virtual world from reality. Each received a very short jail sentence for negligent homicide.
The international news media leapt onto the story, expressing both fascination and disgust with the tragedy. That included director Valerie Veatch, who set out to understand the modern-day cultural and technological influences that caused Sarang’s death.
The result, a documentary called Love Child, debuts on HBO this week. I spoke with Veatch about Internet addiction, the uniquely tech-driven culture of Korea, and where the couple are now. Highlights from our chat:
What piqued your interest in this story?
On a subtle intuitive level, I was always kind of creeped out by the way that everyone just started using their smartphones. I felt like people around me had weird phone addictions, like Facebook and Grindr and all of these apps that are designed to suck you in and produce a certain level of user behavior.
Then in 2010 I was in Rome, and BBC International was running a story about the Sarang case. 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. 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.
Love Child touches on South Korea’s super-high-tech infrastructure and how it’s become a big part of the country’s culture. Do you think this incident could’ve only happened there?
There have been several instances of parenthood or traditional family structure being interrupted by gaming or Internet overuse all around the world. This isn’t unique to Korea. This issue is so focused in Korea because they have the fastest broadband infrastructure. They’ve had the fastest Internet for about 15 or 20 years, and all the companies that are making these interface devices — like flatscreens and smart TVs and smartphones — are all in Korea.
I think a lot of people feel like, Oh they’re just sitting in a room staring at a screen, how sad. In reality, they’re having a highly social experience. In Korea, there’s a love for hanging out in a big group. That cultural factor makes it so that sitting in a gaming console and hanging out with your friends online isn’t necessarily weird. More people can be together in one space, and it’s actually kind of wonderful.
I don’t think Korea is the only place where this kind of thing can happen. As high-speed Internet infrastructure develops everywhere, we will continue to face these social questions about how we use this technology and what it’s doing to us on a human level.
How important was it to understand the content of the game Prius, which was what the couple was playing?
Around the time that Prius was out, a lot of the free-to-play online games coming out in Korea were developing these little pet apps that would sort of be like Tamagotchis, but in the game you would have to take care of it in addition to your avatar. It was designed to increase the female user base.
The irony of it is how the story even happened. They just applied the parenting techniques that they learned in raising the online child to the real baby. In that exchange, they lost key information about how to raise a real baby. But it was like the baby just lacked the interface to communicate its needs to them; it’s not like they were trying to kill it. That’s where this story is so interesting. The courts ruled that they weren’t guilty because they truly were unable to distinguish between the virtual world and the real world. Their mind-sets were geared toward a certain interface, and reality just lacked that.
The movie ends in us learning that the couple plan to have another baby, and they vow to treat it correctly. But it felt very inconclusive. It was almost terrifying to learn that they would take a second try at parenthood.
The first question from a screening I did was, “Where were the social services in Korea? This isn’t something that social services is trained to look out for?”
From the American standpoint, we’re all about the jailhouse confession and this big-tent revivalist coming-to-tears attitude of redemption. In Korea, the sentiment of what is a family issue and what is a public issue are very distinct. So they’re totally left alone to raise their new baby. 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. 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.
But that’s not in the film. Was that intentional?
It was a real intentional artistic choice on my part. The way the film was received in Korea was so important to me. My films are spaces for conversation to bounce around in; they’re these highly constructed conversation chambers. They weren’t the kinds of people who could articulate or reflect on what had happened in a way that would’ve been productive toward the dialogue of the film … these people didn’t have any agency at all, nor any concept of what it would be like to be on international television. I felt like it was so not my style to shove my camera in a person’s face while they’re crying.
Believe me, I got so much flack from HBO for it. they were like, “What the hell?” But I’m just not that kind of filmmaker.
What’s the most interesting audience response you’ve received from showing the film so far?
The best question was from the Seattle Q&A. Someone said, “Don’t you think that this is going to be like how in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) used to have homosexuality as a mental disorder? Don’t you think this is just one generation looking at the other, evaluating their behavior?”
I thought that was such a fantastic point. We really do need to delve into this whole culture and learn their language and create new and more productive rhetoric around it.
Love Child debuts on HBO Monday night at 9 p.m. Eastern.