A tearful reunion between a mother and her dead daughter via advanced virtual reality for a South Korean television has become an online hit, triggering a fierce debate about voyeurism and exploitation.
The footage began with the girl – who died of leukemia in 2016 – emerging from behind a pile of wood in a park as if playing hide-and-seek.
“Mum, where have you been?” she asks. “I’ve missed you a lot. Have you missed me?”
Tears streaming down her face, Jang Ji-sung reached out towards her, wracked with emotion.
“I have missed you Na-Yeon,” she told the computer-generated six-year-old, her hands moving to stroke her hair.
But in the real world, Jang was standing in front of a studio green screen, wearing a virtual reality headset and touch-sensitive gloves, her daughter’s ashes in a locket around her neck.
At times the camera cut to Jang’s watching husband and their three surviving children, wiping away tears of their own.
A nine-minute clip of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) documentary “I met you” has been watched more than 13 million times in a week on Youtube.
Many viewers offered Jang their sympathy and support for the concept.
“My mother unexpectedly passed away two years ago and I wish I could meet her through virtual reality,” said one.
But media columnist Park Sang-Hyun said the documentary amounted to exploitation of personal pain.
“It’s understandable a grief-stricken mother would wish to meet her late daughter. I would do the same,” he told media.
“The problem lies in that the broadcaster has taken advantage of a vulnerable mother who lost a child for the sake of the viewer ratings.”
“If the mother had been counseled before the filming,” he added, “I wonder what kind of a psychiatrist would approve this.”
Happy Birthday Baby
It took eight months of filming and programming to create the virtual Na-Yeon, but the makers of the documentary insisted the broadcast was intended to “console the family” rather than promote virtual reality in ultra-wired South Korea.
The technology presented a “new way to keep loved ones in memory”, one of the producers told reporters.
Jang herself – who has her daughter’s name and date of birth tattooed on her arm in memory – hoped the program could “console” others who had lost loved ones.
“Even though it was very brief… I was really happy in the moment,” she wrote on her blog – which she has since turned private.
During the broadcast the two sat at a table to celebrate Na-Yeon’s missing birthdays, singing “happy birthday” together.
Before blowing out the candles, Na-Yeon made a birthday wish: “I want my mother to stop crying.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk.