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One Child Nation

A Film Review

One Child Nation
Directed by Nanfu Wang
Produced by Next Generation, ITVS, WDR/Arte, Motto Pictures, Pumpernickel Films
China, 2019
Mandarin Chinese and local Chinese dialect with English subtitles
89 minutes in duration

Film available on Amazon.
Trailer available on YouTube and on the One Child Nation website.

This was a difficult film to watch and is an equally difficult film to review. I have watched many films about the issues that plague Chinese society and this was the first time I left feeling nauseous, but not because the film was poorly made. It was gut-wrenching because the topic is true, and what was presented was real and devastating to so many. Feeling sick to my stomach came from a combination of anger and sadness. But having said that, I have no regrets, it was a worthy watch.

One Child Nation is a documentary created by Nanfu Wang about China’s one-child policy that was in effect from 1979 to 2015. For 35 years, each family was only allowed to have one child. This was implemented to control population growth as the government believed, without the policy, the country would starve to death.

Wang, who was, herself, born under the policy, does a great job of talking about a major national topic while making it incredibly personal. She shared from her own story, from her perspective now as a new mother, and she involved her own family members and relatives. She rounds this out by also including outside interviews and real footage from historical events. In this way, the film is excellent in showing the extent of the impact of the policy and not just talking about the policy itself. The barebones facts and numbers that we have all heard about are included, but so are many lesser known implications.

The film depicts the impact of the one-child policy by featuring various perspectives:

  • Mothers who gave birth during that time.
  • Women who had been forced to be sterilized.
  • Grandparents who tried to protect their daughters from being sterilized.
  • Family planning officials who enforced the policy.
  • Doctors, midwives, and nurses who conducted tens of thousands of abortions.
  • Children who watched siblings be snatched away.
  • Children who themselves were confiscated and trafficked for adoption.
  • Adopting parents who were lied about the origin stories of their adopted children

The worst is to lose our memories.

This quote was spoken by a Chinese artist that Wang interviewed, who is also passionate about giving a voice to those who suffered under the policy. The artist believed that in forgetting, the pain cannot be validated and it becomes as if it never happened, or as if what happened didn’t matter. 

What happened was horrible but many Chinese today still think that it was necessary. “There would have been starvation, cannibalism, otherwise.” It was the suffering of a few for the survival of many. It was about pragmatism. It was solving an equation. An atheistic worldview doesn’t have anything but that. It only has the practical.

Wang is a bold filmmaker. She was born in a poor rural village but eventually made it to the US to study. Her debut documentary, Hooligan Sparrow, is about Chinese human rights activist Ye Haiyan who sought justice for six girls who were abused by an elementary school principal. That film brought her to the attention of the Chinese government

Despite her family and friends being harassed and followed, Wang insists on continuing down the path of speaking about sensitive issues with confidence.

For One Child Nation Wang was the director, producer, editor, writer, and also starred prominently in it herself. She is the embodiment of the next generation of Chinese filmmakers; others like her are springing up from all over China. They have incredible talent, drive, and determination, but most importantly, they have found their voice. They know what they want to say both creatively and in response to Chinese society.

The one-child policy will forever remind us of a horrifying time in history. The scars of those who were personally impacted will last a lifetime. Thankfully, those like Nanfu Wang are using their passion to bring validation and a voice to so many who have suffered in silence. When it comes to the value of life being destroyed in such a way, something like this should make us sick to our stomachs. 

Editor’s Note: The links in this post have been updated to reflect current streaming availability. 

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Image credit: One Child Nation
Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau was born and raised in Canada. Growing up with immigrant parents from Hong Kong gave her a rich perspective on both Eastern and Western cultures. She has spent her adult life in Asia, beginning in China serving through work in the marketplace. With a colorful and hard-earned career in …View Full Bio

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