China’s one child policy is simple to understand. The country had limited resources in the late 1970s, so the government instituted mandatory population control that expired recently. If every family pitched in and had fewer children, then they would be saved from the brink. One Child Nation documentary explores the consequences of this policy, and they are anything but simple. Indeed, directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang reveal an alarming number of unintended consequences, and most of them are disturbing. The film’s limited scope sometimes raises more questions than answers, but its best passages contain the kind of cognitive dissonance that will be familiar to anyone who watched The Act of Killing, or has a buried family secret.
Wang was born in China during the one child policy, and became pregnant shortly after moving to the United States. She is our entry point into the film. She narrates it, and she is frequently on camera with her interview subjects. The first section of One Child Nation is a series of interviews with Wang’s family. She wants to know what life was like under the one child policy, which leads her to her family’s rural village, as well as the midwives and local politicians who worked there. They are matter of fact about the realities of what happened: one midwife claims she had to kill or abort tens of thousands of children. Forced sterilization was also common.
What makes this so unnerving is how matter-of-fact the interviewees speak about what happened. They all collectively agree the policy was good for the nation, and could not be avoided. They’re not defiant, exactly, but they’re defensive and resigned. Sometimes Wang films herself while holding her baby, so that imagery creates a raw nerve, even while everyone discusses the past. She does not judge anyone, at least not directly, and uses archival propaganda footage to see understand how everyone could reach the same conclusion.
There are no confrontations in One Child Nation, although the film starts to introduce some strong critiques of the policy. Wang interviews an artist whose subjects are babies or fetuses that were discarded (the film insinuates that dead babies, the majority of them little girls, are common in any landfill pile). This footage can be grim, but it’s never excessive. It mostly wants to observe, pushing the journey in whatever directors the filmmakers can get away with (the film never addresses how it avoided getting the attention of the Chinese government).
The most surprising revelations come toward the end, after China opened up adoption of unwanted children from the West. I don’t want to reveal what we learn here, except to say the corruption on display completely undermines China’s initial goals of preserving the status quo. There is a sort of free association here, with Wang leaping from one topic to the next. At times, she seems like an incurious interviewer: we rarely see her ask a follow-up, or push her subjects into admitting something they hold back. Her approach is still understandable, as she does not want to alienate her family and she is a filmmaker, not a journalist. More importantly, even the most diligent investigative journalist would probably find themselves with few real answers.
It would be foolish and reductive to call One Child Nation an anti-China film. Wang still clearly loves her homeland, and plans to keep her elders in her child’s life. Instead, she uses the one child policy to critique what can happen when a country attempts to control women’s bodies. There are echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale in the propaganda we see, and Wang carefully makes a connection between China’s policy and draconian anti-abortion laws in the United States. Surely the filmmakers must have considered how strange it was that, for reasons that are now obvious, China never forced its male population into getting vasectomies.