“One Child Nation” looks back at China’s policy of one child per family, examining its history and human consequences, some of which were horrific. As both a personal journey and an investigative exposé, this documentary, opening Friday at the Opera Plaza, delivers.
Using archival and new materials, directors Nanfu Wang (“Hooligan Sparrow”) and Jialing Zhang (“Complicit”) explore China’s one-child social experiment, a population-control policy in effect from 1979 to 2015. The policy prohibited families, with some exceptions, from having more than one child. Those who didn’t comply were dealt with harshly. Some were subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations.
Parents, meanwhile, in this patriarchal society, abandoned female babies so they could replace them with, they hoped, a boy.
We follow the China-born, U.S.-based Wang, who narrates the film, as she visits her childhood village, where family members share stories about the one-child policy. A picture of trauma, tragedy and misogyny emerges.
Wang’s mother describes how government agents intended to sterilize her after Wang was born. More fortunate than many, she avoided that fate. Because of the family’s rural status, she received permission to have a second child after five years passed.
The saddest story comes from Wang’s uncle, who recalls abandoning his daughter at a market so that he and his wife could try for a boy. The little girl died.
An aunt remembers giving her daughter to a human trafficker.
Wang, whose personal story keeps us hooked, wonders about this cousin she’s never known.
Elsewhere, we meet a midwife who says she performed tens of thousands of sterilizations and abortions, some involving women who were eight or nine months pregnant.
An artist describes finding a fetus in a plastic bag, which he photographed and later depicted in his art. (The image appears in the film, nonexploitatively.)
Hong Kong-based journalist Jiaoming Pang discusses kidnapped children, traffickers, international adoptions and corrupt orphanages. We meet a pair of separated twins living in different parts of the world.
China recently implemented a two-child policy, and the film could use more detail about the social deficiencies caused by the one-child law.
Will there be enough talent in the near future to steer the country firmly forward? How will the current gender imbalance affect the nation?
All said, though, “One Child Nation” is an informative, affecting and important film that solidly documents a dark bit of Chinese history that needs remembering.
The film additionally illustrates the effectiveness of propaganda — in murals, on posters and in folk-arts performances, in this case.
With quiet anger, it indicts concepts of male superiority. Humanely, it condemns but understands the “I had no choice” explanation frequently issued by perpetrators. It inspires thought about the need, in any culture, for resistance.
Wang also offers pointed commentary, as when she compares the Chinese government, which has forced abortions on women, to the U.S. government, which is making abortion increasingly inaccessible. Both are exerting control over female bodies, she notes.
One Child Nation
Three and a half stars
Starring: Nanfu Wang
Directed by: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes