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Nanfu Wang challenges her family’s beliefs–and her own–in the shocking documentary ‘One Child Nation’

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One Child Nation film poster.

Back in 1979, China implemented a revolutionary program known as the One-Child Policy, which aimed to curb the rising population within the country. As the name suggested, families were limited to only one child per family–two for those who lived in the countryside. Objectively, it was a massive success: the policy successfully prevented millions of births within the country, keeping the population in check. This continued up until 2016, when the policy was finally lifted in exchange for the less strict Two-Child Policy.

To most of those who grew up in the West, that might be the extent of their knowledge about China’s population manipulation. Very rarely do people outside of China give the policy further thought: after all, it was an experiment that worked, didn’t it? But in between the lines, there is so much more that needs to be said outside of what the history books might tell you. In co-directors Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang’s eye-opening documentary One Child Nation, the horrors of the policy are exposed–revealing the true colors of a dystopian, harrowing country that will stop at nothing for the sake of control.

Considering the chokehold that China has over the in-state media, One Child Nation is a bold film that pushes back against the country’s very culture. The documentary draws upon many sources of evidence–historical facts, countless in-depth interviews, and even the directors’ personal experiences that detail just how deeply China has brainwashed its own people. Daunting slogans supporting the One-Child Policy loom over entire towns. Chinese operas that sound harmless to the non-native speaker are translated, revealing that the message of their songs are about how having one child is best for the country. Even children are taught to songs about how gloriously perfect China is–while naively singing about how great it is to be a single child. The One-Child Policy is gaslighting on a national level, and worked into the fiber of Chinese society. Detractors, or anyone who decided to (god forbid) have more children than they were allotted, were punished in unusually cruel ways. Chinese family planners and neighbors would forcibly sterilize women, burn their belongings, and take children away. In fact, some were even rewarded for these grotesque acts by the government themselves. Just by living in China, Wang proves, your bodies belong to the government.

A small sample of the children that were picked up and sent to orphanages.

But what’s more surprising is just how people have reacted to having their agency stripped away. For example, the One Child Policy further pushed Chinese families into sexist extremes. As the film shows, countless infant daughters were tossed aside so families could try again for sons. Even Wang’s own family isn’t excluded from such acts. But as she boldly interviews the members of her family and others, their response to these atrocities are of mild annoyance at most.

Wang’s interviewees collectively shrug and said that they couldn’t help it, and that following the policy was what was best for their country. Her uncle, who left his own infant daughter in a local market to die, doesn’t seem too bothered by his actions. Her aunt, as she finds out, gave her daughter away. Her own mother, who also played a part in aiding her relatives when the policy was active (and denied the director herself a higher education in favor of educating her younger brother), still staunchly supports the government’s actions and admits no wrongdoing. In fact, it’s these moments with Wang’s own mother that seem the most uncomfortable within the film. As Wang confronts her family head-on about their steadfast traditional views, one can’t help but wonder if her own views about her family are similarly shaken. For Wang herself, who left the country at 26 and narrates the documentary herself, it’s particularly interesting to see how differently she sees herself compared to the rest of her family.

Still from the documentary detailing hubs where children were adopted out from.

But even amidst all of the bleak details that Wang and Zhang carefully lay out throughout One Child Nation, there are some signs that blind devotion isn’t the case for some Chinese citizens. Wang interviews a born-again doctor who was forced to sterilize countless mothers and kill numerous babies–and discovers that she now treats women who have trouble conceiving. Wang Peng, an artist within China, protests the policy by criticizing it within his shocking artwork (some involve preserving dead babies in jars to represent lives lost during when the policy was active). Even so-called criminals who were pegged as “child-traffickers” during the era are given redemption in One Child Nation. It’s revealed that they were simply picking up abandoned babies on the side of the road and sending them to orphanages so that they could have a chance at life. It’s amazing how easily the Chinese government is able to manipulate their heroic actions and paint them as the villains.

What One Child Nation is able to do is provide a counter argument against the one-sided propaganda that the Chinese government continually spits out to its citizens. Wang’s exposé of the country’s draconian policy is thoroughly damning, calling into question just how far people will go once they’ve been brainwashed by their government for decades. As China moves into the era of the Two-Child Policy, the same thing can be said–just how far will they go?

And for those in the supposedly free world, the film itself seems to posit another question. Just how much have you been conditioned?

Rating: 4.5 / 5

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Li-Wei Chu

Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think. He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.

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