The heartbreaking and vital documentary “One Child Nation” — which won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — is, hands down, the most disturbing horror movie in years.
The body count is in the millions, and the killer cannot be brought to justice — because the killer was a government policy that changed a generation in China.
Co-director Nanfu Wang was born in China in 1985, six years after this policy was enacted by China’s Communist government. The One-Child Policy decreed that all families in urban and suburban areas must limit themselves to having only one child. The policy was begun in 1979, and ended in 2015.
Wang, who now lives and works in America, has just had her first child, a son, when the movie begins. She and co-director Jialang Zhang go back to China for the dual purpose of letting Wang’s mom meet her new grandson and asking Mom about the One-Child Policy and how it changed their lives.
Because the Wangs lived in a rural village, the family was allowed a second child, Nanfu’s brother, Zhihao, but only five years after Nanfu was born. (Nanfu’s name is derived from the Chinese words for “man” and “pillar,” which tells you about her parents’ expectations.) Mom says she was threatened with sterilization after Zhihao, and Zhihao says he’s been told that if he were born a girl, he would have been put in a basket and left to die — something that actually happened to the child of Nanfu’s uncle.
More horrific stories emerge. The film introduces us to the village chief responsible for taking people’s possessions if they violated the policy, to a woman who says she performed more than 50,000 abortions and sterilizations over the years, and to an artist who incorporates images of fetuses into his work to draw attention to the human cost of the One-Child policy.
Wang and Zhang also uncover a secret worthy of a “60 Minutes” exposé: How thousands of babies were rounded up and put in orphanages, which put the babies up for adoption in Western countries, particularly the United States. (The movie profiles Brian and Longlan Stuy, a couple in Lehi, Utah, have three adopted children from China and run a group that tries to match Chinese-born Americans with their biological families back in China.)
The forcefulness with which the One-Child Policy was carried out is matched by the insidious propaganda that promoted it. Playing cards, children’s songs, stage plays, banners, graffiti — there wasn’t a medium that didn’t somehow carry the government’s message that all good, upstanding Chinese citizens would only have one child.
Wang draws out painful details from her interview subjects, as they talk about their complicity and their tacit approval of the One-Child Policy. The refrain of “I had no choice” is repeated with a disheartening regularity, as each was convinced by government propaganda that the only alternative was slow starvation as the population grew.
Wang concludes “One Child Nation” with a stark warning that China’s One-Child Policy is the other side of the same coin as the growing effort to restrict abortion rights in the United States. Both, she points out, are about the government trying to control women’s bodies and their reproductive rights. Why should any government — Communist or democracy — have that kind of power?
‘One Child Nation’
Opened August 9 in select cities; opens Friday, August 23, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for some disturbing content/images, and brief language. Running time: 88 minutes; some scenes in Mandarin, with subtitles.