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One Child Nation (aka Born in China)
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by Jay Seaver

"A very close look at a very large question."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: China's "One Child Per Family" policy was launched in 1979, made an official part of their constitution in 1987, and officially ended in 2015, and the rest of the world often took it for granted, looking at the country's ten-figure population and figuring that yes, this is draconian, but something needed to change. As filmmaker Wang Nanfu points out, this message took hold with even more force in China itself, except that ignoring the implications of it there was an active (but seemingly necessary) choice. This film's close-up view leaves some questions unasked and unanswered, but also makes it impossible to simply view it as an abstraction.

Wang grew up in China, in Diangxi Province's Wang village, and her family was unusual in that she had a younger brother. Her family wasn't breaking the law in this - there was a process by which one could petition for the right to have a second child - but growing up at the height of the country's propaganda push for the policy, it was a black mark on her family. She would later go to college in the United States and marry there, returning home to visit after the birth of her first child, and finding the idea of the government involving itself so closely in her family newly chilling, she starts asking questions.

The thing about China's one child per family policy that has fascinated me in recent years is how it leads to a society not just without siblings, but without aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I always wondered to what extent if eliminating extended family as a support system outside the state was the goal. This is not a particular focus for this film's makers; the actual why of it is not particularly important, and only a little more time is spent on why the practice was ended. Nor should it be, considering the more immediate and personal interests that the filmmakers have. That focus guides the film, sometimes constraining it, but also constantly emphasizing the human reaction as opposed to just the theoretical. Wang and co-director Lynn Zhang Jialing seldom take a broad view, but focus closely on individual stories, often to the point of discomfort.

In part, this is because Wang is in a position where she is both a part of the community and an outsider and is willing to use the former to find out what interests her as the latter. Where many films would have interview footage that show someone caught in an uncomfortable situation, this one shows her inserting herself into the homes of people who are clearly ashamed of what they've been part of, which is often more than a bit unnerving. Even when seemingly not trying to inject her perspective into the conversation, she often catches herself in mirrors, and while that may just be quirks of shooting on location, it emphasizes the horror when she's talking to family members or to the midwives, doctors, and community leaders forced to work against their conscience about seemingly impossible or choices in a way that makes the story much more personal than a more professionally detached film might be.

The film's examination of the policy does not just stop at the border of the filmmaker's village; she also spends some time examining the trafficking and family separations that inevitably occurred as a result, tracing it from children abandoned at birth to the shady agencies that specialized in foreign adoptions. One can see hints of a more conventional documentary as she follows this trail; the interviews with journalists, a couple in Utah who started building a database when they realized there wasn't already one out there, and even a "matchmaker" who served time in prison for his activities are less personally confrontational. The quest to reunite a pair of twins gives the story the same sort of human focus the rest of the film has, but though there are hints of conspiracy, here, like the trafficker and reporter who suggest that exporting babies was a profitable exercise for China, though they threw people in jail when it started to become scandalous.

The calculation implied there is relatively subtle compared to the propaganda saturation that the film documents, and how helpless Wang's family and neighbors felt in the face of it, and that's where the film sometimes works against itself a bit, having people talk about how frightened they were of starvation and other horrors if the country couldn't get its population down but only able to talk about how pervasive the message is rather than truly driving its impact home, and sometimes comes off as more accusatory than is perhaps intended. The later parts of the film showing a switch in messaging to two children per family now being considered ideal raise an interesting, cynical point, but it's too early to see how it plays out.

That's a big-picture question, and the makers of "One Child Nation" are willing to leave that sort of analysis to others. They are effectively zeroing in on how the policy affected individuals; it's for others to multiply that by a billion.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32891&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/22/19 03:48:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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USA
  09-Aug-2019

UK
  N/A

Australia
  09-Aug-2019


Directed by
  Nanfu Wang
  Jialing Zhang

Written by
  N/A

Cast
  (documentary)



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