One Child Nation - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘One Child Nation’ is a brutal, must-see history lesson

Directed by:  Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

“One Child Nation” – “It was like fighting a war.”

A population war.

This eye-opening documentary – from directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang - dives into a massive conflict that embroiled China for about 35 years, a conflict entirely within its own borders.  Due to China’s constrained resources and rapidly expanding population, the government – in 1979 - enacted a one child policy that limited nearly all families to just one offspring.  Except for some exceptions within designated rural communities, China strictly enforced this edict that finally ended in 2015.  It was the largest family planning project in modern history, and although a macroeconomic graph would logically illustrate the country’s supply versus demand conundrum, this policy unleashed senseless and immeasurable collateral damage – both emotional and physical.

For Nanfu Wang, it’s personal.

Born in China in 1985, Wang grew up under the said policy, and once she became a mother, she decided to explore the topic from behind the camera.  She interviews her family, friends and neighbors, as they all look back at those troubled times. 

Wang effectively narrates the film in broad strokes and intimate details, and she introduces the policy to the viewers and, in the process, unleashes figurative body blows through interviewer/interviewee discourse.  Some of the answers shocked Wang.  They will also stun audiences into absolute silence, and other moments will draw painful gasps.

Well, the Chinese government declaring that families can only have one child is simple enough to say, but infinitely more laborious to enforce.  To an outsider, the policy might seem terribly invasive, but when one’s imagination wonders about the possible implementation methods, expect the worst.  Once the government set the policy in motion, they needed to follow-up with three steps:  delivering the message, investigating behavior and carrying out course correction. 

The film walks through each phase in blunt fashion, and the first - as one would expect - involves propaganda.  When running a communist country, resistance to messaging simply doesn’t exist.  Reminders of the one child policy were found everywhere.  Textbooks, live performances, television, and posters are obvious mediums, but calendars and matchbooks might seem overboard. 

Then again, when an elementary school kid (on television) lectures the populace by rapping, “If you have a second child, you violate the law,” you know that the government is addressing their marketing campaign in vastly creative ways.

China’s people living through constant messaging is one burden, but Wang discoverers much darker forces when the government pursues investigation and course correction, and Zhang and Wang’s camera sears from the interviews’ brutal reveals.  This is especially true during a frank conversation with Wang’s mother (Zaodi’s) midwife, and her role as an enforcer.

Wang’s uncle’s story will probably reduce you to tears, and her brother Zhihao also speaks on camera.  If you’re wondering how Wang has a brother, her family was one of the aforementioned rural exceptions.  Since Nanfu was a girl, the government allowed her parents to try again, in the hopes of having a boy. 

Governmental, institutional and everyday treatment of girls and women as second-class citizens is not a decidedly new concept and just look to thousands of years of human history for countless examples.  In this particular case, Wang explores China’s views and actions.  The doc moves from birth reduction and into another direction, and none of material is easy to digest.

Wars never are.

(3.5/4 stars)

Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.