No, it’s not the Diana Ross song. A fascinating topic presented in a heavy-handed way, “Love Child” joins a growing body of work that explores the potential costs of our Web-connected existence, using the tragedy of a South Korean infant neglected and left to die by her game-obsessive parents. Yet Valerie Veatch’s documentary tries too hard to be lyrical and Important, incorporating images of role-playing games in lingering shots that have about as much as subtlety as being whacked over the head with a console. Ultimately, there’s a story here worth seeing; it’s only too bad the film doesn’t fully do it justice.
At first blush, the parents sound like monsters, having let their baby (whose name, Sarang, means “Love”) essentially starve while immersing themselves in online gaming, leaving the child unattended for hours while they went to an outside venue to play. Given South Korea’s pride in its advanced Internet infrastructure, it’s a classic cautionary tale — one that requires scant extrapolation to cross borders.
Without ever showing the faces of the parents, Veatch (“Me @the Zoo”) seeks to foster unexpected empathy for them, while making the case for Internet addiction — a defense proffered by their attorney — as a mitigating factor in their neglect.
The heavy reliance on subtitles proves less of an impediment, alas, than the choices made to visualize this condition, which include efforts to transport the viewer into the virtual world the parents and the other gamers interviewed found so enticing. (Perhaps inadvertently, the game, Prius, and the way it’s depicted, vaguely resemble the fantasy sequences in the movie “Brazil.”)
The movie is at its best when remaining straightforward, interviewing police who investigated the case; public defender Ji-Hoon Lee; or Andrew Salmon, a journalist who covered the story.
The harmful effects of the Internet have been extensively vetted elsewhere, including Douglas Rushkoff’s PBS documentaries “Digital Nation” and the recent “Generation Like.” And those films did a better job of wedding the micro to the macro — even if the event that provides “Love Child’s” foundation is considerably more grave and disturbing.
HBO’s docs are generally provocative, and in terms of forcing the audience to think about a cyber-life whose gradual encroachments are easy to take for granted, this one delivers on that level. As structured, though, “Love Child” is a tough documentary to like.