‘One Child Nation’ tackles intense national issue but fails to finish the job

One Child Nation is a documentary by new mother Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang that attempts to search for answers and perspectives about China’s one child policy beginning in 1979. While One Child Nation often tackles the difficult subject with poise, it lacks a cohesive structure and introduces different strings of narratives that struggle to tie in with the main points. (DLH: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Dayna Hagewood

One Child Nation starts strong with flashing dates marking the important movements of the one child policy in China. The opening sequence is intercut with images of military vehicles and uniform marching juxtaposed to fetus feet, hands, and embryonic liquid. This contrast in these images immediately introduces the main question of the film: should state policy and national well-being come before women’s autonomy?

In many ways, One Child Nation is both a personal exploration of Nanfu Wang’s first steps into exploring motherhood and also a criticism of China’s treatment of increasing population numbers and national policy as it pertains to women’s bodies and ability to have children. The film combines interviews with those that were impacted by the one child policy and also contains voice-over narration of Nanfu Wang’s commentary on these issues.

Wang traces the multi-faceted impact of the policy on mothers, fathers, midwives, village leaders, artists, and even those abroad. The strongest sections of the film are the interviews on the ground in China with the various people selected to speak. What is most interesting about these interviews is that despite personal feelings about the loss of babies, forced sterilization, or unwilling abortions, many people said the same kinds of things about the actual policy.

These statements of “we carried out orders,” and “what was I supposed to do,” portray a distinct feeling of helplessness from the interviewees when asked about their feelings on the policy. These statements are powerful, eerie, and speak more to the state of the country during the policy than anything else in the film.

One Child Nation is full of devastating facts and testimonies about what life was like under the one child policy. A midwife recalls that she must have killed 50,000 babies during her career. An artist shows shocking photographs of fetuses and dead babies dumped under bridges, on the street, and at the local market. A village elder recalls propaganda from the television, operas, plays, murals, and food packaging. Wang does an excellent job of demonstrating just how widespread and devastating the one child policy was to families, individuals, and the country as a whole.

However, towards the second half of the film, One Child Nation loses its momentum and shifts to talking about adoptions abroad. Wang explores the harsh reality of human trafficking during this time and interviews one of the “best” traffickers. Essentially, families would either give or sell their babies (almost always female babies, as males are valued more) to a trafficker, who would then bring them to an orphanage where they would be adopted abroad. Other times, children would be forcibly taken away from families and suffer the same fate regardless. These babies were marketed as orphans even though they had families, and in some cases, established lives.

One Child Nation then crosses oceans and begins to develop the story of a couple in the United States that works to reunite adopted Chinese children with their birth families in China. While this section of the film did give some perspective into the massive issue of the human trafficking and orphanage industry during the time of the one child policy, it also seemed to detract from the major points of the film in that it took the focus away from China and those directly impacted by the policy.

It didn’t help that many of the children the couple reached out to wanted nothing to do with finding their birth family, and the ethics of the process seemed to be called into question, but not acknowledged by the film.

One Child Nation started out strong and certainly packs a punch. It explores the gender divide in China, the population struggle, and the implications of extremely strict government policy on everyday people. However, the film could have been much tighter and stitched together all of the pieces to create a stronger conclusion about the policy.

Read FF2 Media’s interview with Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang HERE.

© Dayna Hagewood (8/16/2019) FF2 Media

Featured Image: Nanfu Wang and her son.

Top Photo: The One Child Nation poster.

Middle Photo: Director Nanfu Wang.

Bottom Photo: A listing of babies available for adoption.

Photo Credits: One Child Nation EPK

Does One Child Nation pass the Bechdel Wallace test?

Yes. Director Nanfu Wang speaks with many women in her hometown village about their feelings about the policy and their roles during that time period.


Tags: FF2 Media

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Dayna graduated from Rutgers University in May of 2019 with a degree in English and Cinema Studies and a concentration in Creative Writing. Dayna loves working with FF2 Media because writing about film harmonizes her greatest interests and allows her to participate in showcasing women artists doing amazing work. As a writer, film buff, and avid cross-stitcher, Dayna appreciates that FF2 carves out a space for women artists in an industry so unwilling to lend one to marginalized groups. She is proud to aid in creating and facilitating that necessary space.
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