Review: ‘One Child Nation’ looks at Chinese policy in scattered way

by Emily Zhang | 2/12/20 2:00am

“One Child Nation,” directed by award-winning documentarian Nanfu Wang, is one of the first documentaries to delve into China’s one-child policy. While it does so in an innovative way, the film lacks objectivity and coherence in telling the story. 

The one-child policy is a birth planning program in China that began in 1979 and officially ended in 2015, created to limit the rapid population growth of the country. Under the law, each Chinese couple was only allowed to give birth to one child and were subjected to fines if they had more. 

The film screened at the Hopkins Center on Feb. 9 and, as written on the Hop’s brochure for the documentary, promised to go “beyond the slogan of China’s longtime one-child policy to reveal a system of violence, corruption, propaganda and silence.” I became curious about how Wang, a filmmaker who was born and raised in China and moved to the United States in her 20s, would examine a policy she grew up with.

The film is indeed very thought-provoking, as it forced me to reconsider a Chinese governmental policy that I had not previously thought deeply about. In the past, I had heard how the lack of siblings affects childhood development or how the one-child policy leads to a demographic imbalance of the Chinese population. Yet I had never gotten a chance to know that the policy was implemented through a massive trend of forced abortions, sterilizations, child abandonments and family separations — which are shown in the film. To be honest, it was extremely difficult, and sometimes even disturbing, for me to watch the film, as Wang constantly employs images of dead fetuses and interviews about forced abortion and sterilization to concretize the impact of this policy to the audience. Nevertheless, the film stands out with its dense packing of a series of honest conversations with people deeply involved in the policy’s implementation, including former sterilization doctors, family-planning officers and child-traffickers. As an audience member, I really valued how Wang incorporates voices and perspectives from people that I would otherwise never had a chance to hear from.

Wang is definitely not one of those documentary filmmakers who seeks to minimize their own voices in storytelling; instead, she leads the audience through a first-person account of the impact the policy had on her own family. Wang first lays out the story of her personal experience growing up in a two-child family under the one-child policy, then delves into the human-trafficking network of abandoned children in China and, lastly, addresses the adoption of abandoned children by families in the United States through Chinese orphanages. Her abundant use of first-person voice-over quickly engages the audience from the very first scene of the film and arouses a strong sense of empathy throughout the story.

Yet this narrative approach constantly reminds me of biases in her storytelling. This was especially true at the start of the film when Wang explains film footage with voice-overs in a confusing way that creates many misleading representations of her subjects. Oftentimes, the footage that is shown and the voiceover that is played do not match, leaving viewers lost about the significance of what they are seeing. For instance, Wang’s reflection of how her childhood was filled with one-child policy propaganda songs is merged with footage of kindergarten children in her hometown today singing a folk song that has nothing to do with one-child policy or propaganda. Videos from military parades during the Chinese National Day celebration are coupled with Wang saying “China started a real war against its own people.” Wang’s family watching a traditional Chinese opera with other villagers is shown in conjunction with her statement that the masses were ignorant of government propaganda. Though I don’t know whether Wang mismatched those details deliberately or simply out of convenience, unnecessary inaccuracies such as these can be spotted throughout the film and makes it difficult to fully accept the reliability of Wang’s narration.

Wang is very ambitious in the sense that she intends to expose many traumatic impacts of the policy that used to be rarely discussed among the public. Yet the main theme of the documentary is sometimes made obscure, as she muddles with too many storylines at the same time — toggling between gender discrimination to human trafficking, orphanage corruption to debates around abortion. Some parts of the film, for example, are filled with lengthy interviews that have little connection to the one-child policy. At one point, Wang asked her grandfather to recount how one of his children died from a misdiagnoses of smallpox and another from meningitis, and Wang herself then revealed how her father died at a young age from a hemorrhage. Though these peeks into the hardships that Wang and her family have been through help the audience to contextualize the environment that Wang grew up in, neither of these two incidents are related to the one-child policy, making me wonder if Wang includes those painful memories only to sensationalize the story and draw tears from the audience. 

In other parts of the documentary, Wang effectively reveals many persistent problems in rural China, such as gender inequality, human trafficking and the corruption in orphanages. However, the link between those problems and the one-child policy often seems distant. At many points, it was hard for me to grasp Wang’s intent or extrapolate a broader import. For example, when she asks the elders in her village to distinguish between an extended grandson, which is a grandson born through a daughter, and an immediate grandson, a grandson born through a son, she does not explain how this connects to the one-child policy. The intent was also unclear when she explains that her name, Nanfu, means her parents’ wish for a son — and she reveals she is the older daughter in her family and has a younger brother.

The film effectively demonstrates the existence of problems like gender discrimination in Wang’s hometown, yet it would have been more compelling if Wang spent more time establishing a causal relationship between the one-child policy and the exacerbation of those problems, like how the policy could aggravate gender discrimination by spurring more abandonment of newborn girls, which in turn could intensify human trafficking. Wang spends little time discussing those connections. Not until the end of the film does Wang seem to realize the necessity to establish links between the different problems she discussed. Her unbalanced account makes the film less like a focused examination of the one-child policy and more like a panorama of several pressing issues in contemporary rural China. 

While appreciating the unprecedented angles that Wang employs to approach this controversial government policy in China, I would definitely recommend “One Child Nation” as a must-watch. But in the future, I would also like to hear some more objective accounts that zoom in on the one-child policy itself, which is something that “One Child Nation” falls short at doing.