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One Child Nation

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
One Child Nation Movie Poster Image
Horrors in China's recent past uncovered in haunting docu.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 85 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Strong themes of courage and compassion are evident in how Zhang and Wang approach their subjects and ask them tough questions with kindness. Zhang and Wang also show courage in investigating a historical wrong from their homeland, rather than letting history cover up misdeeds and horrors. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Wang emerges as a potent role model who's unafraid of confronting wrongs, both in China's past and in her own family, despite her love for both. China's traditional male-centric culture is discussed at great length: Viewers hear how girls are abandoned to die because parents hope to have a son, and hear about more subtle ways that boys are favored -- allowed to attend school longer, praised more, given special treats and treatment. 

Violence

The film's disturbing content is more about what people say than what's shown. Two former family-planning officials straightforwardly discuss how they forced women into abortions and sterilization surgeries, even induced live births and then killed the babies. Another terrible sequence details how a father left his infant daughter to die in a market (apparently a common practice) so that he could try for a son. An artist who creates works depicting the horrors of the one-child policy shows photographs of dead and abandoned infants in trash bags (viewers see their decomposed bodies, body parts, and faces) and has a fetus preserved in a scientific jar that the camera shows at length. One interviewee tells a story about a grandmother who threatened to kill herself or her baby granddaughter if her parents refused to abandon her. 

Sex
Language

Language is infrequent but includes "f--k" and "f--ked" in Chinese (translated in English subtitles). 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One subject smokes a cigarette in a brief interview. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that One Child Nation is an unflinching documentary about China's one-child population-control policy and how it played out in the lives of regular people. Dialogue is usually in Chinese with English subtitles, but some English is spoken as well. What seems at first like a light examination of history quickly turns into a look at haunting and truly horrific acts, as former officials talk about presiding over forced abortions, forced sterilization surgeries, the destruction of the houses of those who had more than one child, and even babies who were born alive but killed by midwives who frankly relate their deeds and say they had "no choice" but now fiercely regret what they've done. Photographs from an artist whose work concerns the one-child policy show abandoned babies in plastic bags tossed into piles of trash, with decomposed faces and bodies visible. The artist also has a fetus preserved in a medical jar and talks about how finding it affected him. Subjects also talk about abandoning their babies to die, such as one girl that was left at a market meat counter after her grandmother threatened to kill the baby and herself if her parents didn't desert the baby. One subject smokes a cigarette during an interview, and interviewees say "f--k" during their segments. Co-directors Wang, who appears in her documentary, and Zhang courageously confront horrors in China's recent past, and interview subjects with compassion while asking (very) tough questions that elicit haunting, appalling memories. 

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What's the story?

Determined to keep population growth in check, China introduced a strict "family planning" program in 1979 that turned the communist country into a ONE CHILD NATION. To this day, China proudly trumpets the success of the policy that "prevented" 400 million births. But the legacy of horror is not as well-known: millions of forced abortions, forced sterilizations, murdered and abandoned infants who were sold to orphanages for international adoptions if they were "lucky," and men and women left to ponder the part they played in the terrible history. Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, this documentary digs into a painful past that's far from over for those who lived through it. 

Is it any good?

The horror buried in (pretty recent) history is presented in a straightforward pull-no-punches style that makes the bare facts all the more horrendous to absorb. In an overpopulated world, China's one-child policy sounds both sensible and pragmatic -- but when Nanfu Wang decides to investigate how exactly that policy was put into place, what she finds is positively haunting. She begins by taking a look at the propaganda that convinced young Nanfu that the policy was a positive one: the operas, posters, signs, national televised specials, and even children's songs that praised three-person families. "You'll go to jail!" sings one adorable moppet on TV, warning those who have two or more kids. "Don't say I didn't warn you!" But though these cracked cultural artifacts are easy to laugh at, Wang and co-director Jialing Zhang are merely softening viewers up for the emotional body blows to come. 

Things start getting grim as Wang and Zhang interview a former village chief, who holds the camera's gaze as he talks about state policy but drops his eyes when he relates incidents in which local families who had more than one child saw their houses destroyed, and worse, when a woman resisted abortion and/or sterilization, how officials would gather together and "force" her. Force? What? "Who'd want to recall such painful memories?" the chief mutters, refusing to go into details and insisting he would only "stand and watch" when such "f--ked up" things were happening. But the former "family planning" officials interviewed next are more brutally honest about the tens of thousands of babies they aborted, often for unwilling women who would "cry, scream, go crazy" on the table, or about how they sometimes induced live births and then murdered the babies. One family planner now only uses her skills to help infertile families have babies, hoping that the new lives she helps bring forth now will make up for the past actions she can't forgive herself for. Disquieting, shocking, and scarier than any horror movie, One Child Nation's unflinching account is hard to watch but impossible to forget. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how documentaries tell a story differently from a fictional tale. Why are documentaries usually made? Is it to expose a past or present wrong? How do filmmakers engage viewers' emotions when presenting facts and images? 

  • Nanfu Wang begins this documentary's investigation by visiting her hometown and speaking to people she knows. Would a filmmaker who was not at home with her subjects and who didn't speak the same language have such intimate access? Does her connection to the documentary's subject lend this movie more credibility? 

  • How does this documentary show the importance of courage and compassion? Why are these important character strengths?

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