Movie review: Sundance doc ‘One Child Nation’ tells the heartbreaking inside story of China’s single child policy
“One Child Nation” isn’t necessarily a difficult documentary to watch, but its story is heartbreaking to hear.
“ONE CHILD NATION” — 3½ stars — Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang, Tunde Wang; R (some disturbing content/images, and brief language); Broadway; running time: 89 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — “One Child Nation” isn’t necessarily a difficult documentary to watch, but its story is heartbreaking to hear.
Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s film is a firsthand journey into the aftermath of China’s infamous one child policy, which was in effect from 1979 until 2015. During that stretch, in order to combat overpopulation, the Chinese government only allowed couples to have a single child. “One Child Nation” engages one-on-one with the everyday people who were impacted by the policy, including those who were expected to enforce it.
First, we learn a little bit about Wang, who was born in China in 1984 in a rural village. Since the policy was more lax in rural areas, Wang’s parents were allowed to have a second child — a boy — but in a world surrounded by propaganda celebrating the one-child policy, Wang still felt out of step with her culture.
Wang left for America as an adult and didn’t think much of the policy until having a child of her own. The experience inspired her to return home and talk to the people who lived with the policy, and “One Child Nation” is the often-sobering result.
One of the first people we meet is Tunde Wang, a former village chief who was asked to enforce the policy. Often this meant destroying the homes of those who refused to comply. As he describes his actions, Tunde cites a familiar refrain: he was under orders, and had no choice in the matter.
Things get darker from there as we meet the village midwife, who estimates that over her career she participated in 50 to 60 thousand sterilizations and abortions. As a result, she has dedicated her post-retirement life to helping couples with infertility. Her work now is, in her own words, an attempt to “atone for my sins.”
Surprisingly, others are much more matter-of-fact with their involvement, including a family planning official who insists that the policy saved China. Even Wang’s mother argues that without the policy, citizens would have resorted to cannibalism to survive.
For the most part, Wang and Zhang rely on firsthand accounts to tell their harrowing story, which includes accounts of child abandonment, frequently because a family was hoping for a boy instead of a baby girl. Most of the visuals come via bizarre propaganda clips of dancers and state sponsored advertisements promoting the policy. To combat that sanitized image, a local artist named Peng photographed piles of trash that revealed discarded fetuses from abortions.
Content like this is gripping enough on its own, but “One Child Nation’s” narrative thread moves from fascinating to nefarious as we meet a couple from Lehi, Utah, whose investigation into their three adopted Chinese daughters uncovers yet another awful state practice.
The sum total is a film that pairs excellent content with engaging storytelling. While the film tends to lean hard on the side of criticism, it’s interesting to note Wang’s inclusion of perspectives that support the one child policy. It elevates “One Child Nation” as a film willing to take an unflinching and objective look at its subject, which is a rarity these days. This one is definitely worth a look.
Rating explained: “One Child Nation” draws a soft R-rating for a few images of discarded fetuses (honestly quite tame compared to the kind of thing you might see on a protest sign), as well as a pair of instances of the F-word. The film is presented in Mandarin with English subtitles.