One Child Nation is the latest documentary from Amazon Studios, delving into the accounts of Chinese-born filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang as they interview victims and perpetrators of China’s one-child policy. The infamous legislation, which lasted thirty years from 1975 until 2015, imposed harsh penalties on couples who chose to bare more than one child in an attempt to curb population growth and stop economic decay. Going into this documentary, I hoped that One Child Nation would teach me more about its subject matter than I already knew. Thankfully, the movie does exactly that with its illuminating discussion of a topic not often mentioned in western media.
Since this film is a participatory documentary, Wang chooses to tell her story not with pretty visuals but rather with eye-opening accounts from herself and many other participants. She and Zhang take several interviews with Chinese citizens to tell an authentic and haunting narrative that, portrayed alongside videos and photos Wang edited in conjunction with said interviews, reiterate how this policy caused more harm than good for Chinese families. Composers Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero, who previously composed the musical score for Hulu’s Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap, build upon this story through another somber yet powerful score that never distracts from the material on display. Most of the movie is spoken in Chinese so anyone going into this movie should likely prepare themselves for the many English subtitles that they’ll inevitably have to read.
In terms of perspectives, One Child Nation provides an accurate picture of China’s long-term socio-political implications that its population suffered under this policy. Although several interviewees like Wang’s mother believe that the one-child policy saved the country from an economic downfall, they all echo the exact same problem with this law: they had no choice. This response, of course, also comes from the interviewees that were psychologically affected by this policy in the long run. These testimonies will surely sway viewers unfamiliar with the subject matter of One-Child Nation and each one feels both heartbreaking and fascinating—some more than others. These stories a retired midwife who now treats patients with infertility to “repent for her sins” as well as a formerly incarcerated trafficker who collected and sold unwanted babies to orphanages. Wang adds her own story to the mix and makes the documentary’s narrative even more personal, thereby allowing it to captivate American audiences like myself who initially knew little about the policy’s corrupt impact.
As for the narrative itself, to describe it as shocking would be an understatement. As a way to indoctrinate this law into something acceptable, the Chinese Communist Party used colorful entertainment through television and dance performances to brainwash the public into supporting the government’s actions. Even Wang fell victim to this propaganda, mentioning how she too was made loyal to her country through tactics and only now realizes her naivety.
What the Chinese population weren’t told was how this policy would be enacted through forced sterilizations and the forceful removal of children from their families, leading to psychological damage and multiple human rights violations. On a related note, One Child Nation does not stray away from disturbing images such as, without spoiling too much, pictures of dead fetuses in public areas. The documentary also acknowledges how Chinese families would often favor boys over girls as a way to keep their family tree going. American conservative pundits may use this film to support abortion bans, but Wang makes it quite clear at the end how both America and China enacted laws such as these with the sole intent to control women’s bodies.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
One Child Nation is an important movie to watch at this current moment in history. It successfully illustrates why more people should familiarize themselves with the one-child policy and its harrowing implications across more than three decades. Let’s hope the documentary receives an Oscar nomination for its terrifying subject matter.