Many movies have made me cry. Very few have been as difficult or impossible even to write about without crying as Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s brilliant, devastating Sundance Grand Jury winner One Child Nation, a courageous stealth documentary about China’s draconian one-child policy, which held sway from 1979 until 2015.
One Child Nation is Wang’s second politically provocative documentary about human-rights abuses in China, following her debut feature, Hooligan Sparrow, made as a film student at New York University. Shooting in secret and smuggling her work out of China, Wang documented the government’s heavy-handed treatment of Chinese human-rights activists working to hold accountable a school principal who sexually abused six elementary schoolgirls.
After the birth of her own firstborn in New York, Wang began thinking about the all-encompassing culture of propaganda and rigid enforcement around family size that had dominated her childhood in rural China.
Despite the angry government response to her first film, she decided to risk returning to China to visit her family and introduce them to her baby, bringing with her a filmmaking colleague, Jialing Zhang, not yet on Chinese authorities’ radar, and try for a second, even more ambitious guerrilla documentary.
The result of this daring venture, One Child Nation, is a vital, organic synthesis of political exposé, cultural inquiry and personal journey.
Constructed of interviews with family members, officials and others, along with archival still photos and videos, including old propaganda films, tied together by first-person voice-over narration and the subtlest of ambient scores by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero, Wang offers a multilayered, devastating look at the draconian policy, its methods and costs, the Orwellian propaganda campaign supporting it, and the human-rights abuses in its wake.
As a schoolgirl, Wang sang in a children’s choir about the evils of having more than one child. She dreaded her classmates learning her shameful secret: She had a younger brother. Her parents were not good, patriotic Chinese citizens like other parents.
Actually, it was Wang herself, not her brother, Zhihao, who was the superfluous child. In rural areas like Wang’s village, the policy was sufficiently relaxed to make allowance, after a five-year gap, for parents whose first child was a girl to try again for a boy.
Though permitted, this was not, as Wang’s shame attests, entirely accepted (the family was denied a literal star on an annual government report card of sorts). Nor was it a matter of course. Wang’s mother was almost subjected to forced sterilization after her birth, but her grandfather intervened on her behalf, hoping for a grandson who would carry on the family line. Even today, it’s clear that he is not a grandfather to Nanfu in the way that he is to Zhihao.
Wang explains that her very name, Nanfu, reflects her parents’ wish for a son. In Mandarin, nan means “man” and fu means “pillar”; the name had been selected before she was born in the hope of a son who would be the pillar of his family. When she was born, her parents named her Nanfu anyway in the hope that she would be strong “like a man.” (Her mother’s name, Zaodi, is even worse: It means “Bringing a younger brother soon.”)
What if Wang’s younger sibling had been a girl? Zaodi explains that just before the birth, her own mother said that if the second child were also a girl, they would put her in a basket and abandon her in the street like so many other baby girls, including Nanfu’s cousin, who died after two days, covered in mosquito bites.
How could parents do such a thing? Wang’s uncle explains that, like Nanfu’s grandmother, his own mother instigated the abandonment, even threatening to kill herself as well as the child if he tried to keep her.
While this seems inhuman, Wang suggests that the state’s intrusive control of every area of life tends to undermine moral thinking: “When every major life decision is made for you, all your life, it’s hard to feel responsible for the consequences.”
As horrifying as these family stories are, they’re dwarfed by the appalling directness of the violence attested by a former village chief, Tunde Wang, now in his 70s, and especially by the local midwife, 84-year-old Huaru Yuan, who delivered Nanfu herself.
Families who resisted lost everything; their homes were demolished, their property confiscated. Women were abducted, bound “like pigs,” and brought for forced sterilization or abortion.
Yuan, the midwife, tells Nanfu that she took part in tens of thousands of such sterilizations and abortions — a crime of unsupportable enormity that haunts her to this day.
While others minimize their responsibility for their actions, citing the strictness of the policy and their lack of choice, Yuan unsparingly indicts herself: “While some might say these were not bad things because it was my job, I was the one who killed. I was the executioner.”
What hope she has, she says, was given to her by a 108-year-old monk, who told her that if she worked with infertile couples for as little as possible, “each baby you bring to life could reverse a hundred you killed.”
Despite working exclusively with infertile couples for years to “atone for [her] sins,” Yuan still anticipates that “there will be retribution for me. The state gave the orders, but I carried them out.”
Yuan’s frank self-accusation contrasts queasily with the self-pitying perspective of the former village chief, Tunde Wang, whose comments about the horrors he oversaw are almost overshadowed by his self-pitying remarks about the difficulty of being a village chief in those days.
It would be bad enough if everyone agreed on the indefensibility of the policy and the atrocities with which it was enforced. Yet, maddeningly, Wang’s mother stoutly supports the policy to this day, maintaining that China would have been ruined without it. Worst of all is the attitude of a decorated celebrity family-planning official, Shuqin Jiang, who looks back with pride at her work in what she calls “a population war.”
The pattern of abuses changes after 1992, when the Chinese government realized there was an international market for Chinese babies.
Suddenly the newborns abandoned in the streets were scooped up by child traffickers and sold to state-run orphanages, along with children surrendered by parents or even forcibly taken from them. These children were fraudulently marketed to Western couples with made-up back stories about their orphan status.
Families torn apart by this cynical program, including twins separated at birth or afterward, occupies a substantial segment of the last third of the film, as Wang interviews a couple in Utah, Brian and Longlan Stuy, who adopted three Chinese girls and founded a group called Research-China dedicated to helping separated Chinese family members find one another.
Heartbreakingly, it appears family members in China are often more eager to learn about their relatives in the West than vice versa, in part because Western families seem to fear the possibility of families in China demanding their children back.
Although much of the mainstream acclaim for One Child Nation has focused on the human-rights abuses committed against parents and postpartum children, the film bears witness to the dignity of the unborn, especially in the work and words of the visual artist Peng Wang.
The film opens with images of Chinese military spectacle intercut with extreme close-ups of what is gradually revealed to be a fetus preserved in a jar of formaldehyde.
Later we learn that Peng Wang, while working on an art project involving painting trash, discovered this and other discarded fetuses in medical-waste bags amid heaps of refuse.
His outraged response was to memorialize the fetuses in photographs, even preserving some; more pointedly, he made a series of fetal paintings using every page of Mao’s Little Red Book, a direct indictment of the “Great Leap Forward” as the foundation for the unsupportable atrocities perpetrated in the name of the one-child policy.
For Peng Wang, the crux of the state’s abuse of power is its war against truth and memory — a war typified in the revised propaganda campaign extolling the virtues of the new two-child policy and essentially memory-holing the policy that held sway for 35 years before that.
Perhaps the most eye-opening theme is the immersiveness of the government’s propaganda campaign promoting total loyalty to the infallible party and the endless benefits of its wise policy. Folk operas and musical performances, playing cards and matchboxes, murals and TV spots, textbooks and lunchboxes — the one-child policy was everywhere, until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
In 2015, China implemented the two-child policy. “One is too few; two is just right!” the ubiquitous new messaging declares. “The young will have siblings; the old will be cared for!”
Was the one-child policy wrong, then? All too soon, the implicit answer to this question may be: What one-child policy?
With a single line, late in the film, critiquing anti-abortion laws in the U.S. as another way of seeking to “control women’s bodies,” the filmmaker Wang dispels any thought of anti-abortion sentiment.
Yet this jab is belied, even overshadowed, not only by the visual impact of the artist Wang’s work, but also by his eloquent words about looking at the fetus in the jar and seeing his own son, and his reflections on the fragility of life and the respect due to every life, specifically in reference to the murdered unborn honored in his work. The filmmakers’ politics aside, One Child Nation is overwhelmingly, and on multiple levels, a pro-life film.
In 85 sharply constructed, well-edited minutes, not every angle can be covered. While One Child Nation does highlight the cultural bias against girls — as well as belated official concern over an aging population without enough young people to care for them — the alarming preponderance of boys over girls is among the effects not covered.
Still, in those 85 minutes there are no missteps or wasted moments.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Caveat Spectator: Frank discussion of atrocities, including forced abortions; some disturbing images; brief language. Might be okay for mature teens.