'One Child Nation': A Gripping But Overstuffed Snapshot Of China’s One-Child Policy [Review]

In 1979, China rolled out its notorious one-child policy, banning its citizens – with some exceptions – from having more than one child. Part of an extensive birth-planning program, aiming to control a population nearing 1 billion in size and thus stretch limited resources further, it was the most extreme measure of its kind. In 2015, to improve the balanced development of the population and to tackle an aging population, China abolished the rule. Even though the government is under immense pressure to end restrictions altogether, it returned to a two-child policy similar to that enforced for a decade between 1969 and 1979. This signified the welcome close of an awful, controversial chapter in the country’s history – the impacts of which continue to ripple through society today. Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s insightful and shocking documentary “One Child Nation” delves into these impacts. And it’s not for the faint-hearted!

Wang (who also narrated and produced the film) comes at the topic from a partially subjective angle, reporting as an individual whose existence began during the policy’s application and who grew up knowing no other way of life. She approaches the subject matter objectively too, seeking the varied but interconnected perspectives of many others affected by the one-child rule, as well as those charged with its implementation.

The interviews conducted in “One Child Nation” are achingly candid, inviting audiences into the disturbing reality faced by millions of Chinese citizens for almost 4 decades. Of course, the almost inconceivable climate of harsh injustice of which interviewees speak implicates the nation’s authorities and its agents – there’s no way it couldn’t. Guilt-ridden, some interviewees point the finger at themselves. And their neighbors. And their family members. Combined, societal norms and a culture of fear imposed by the state-led countless citizens to commit acts that were nothing short of unspeakable by any definition.

Regrettably, if you’re hoping for remorse all-round, tough luck. The twisted rhetoric at the time was so powerful that, for many, the radical cause – and the atrocities committed in its name – seemed entirely reasonable and necessary under fraught circumstances. Such people did what they felt they had to, what they believed would help the long-term survival of their people. For them, keeping the bigger picture in mind, sacrifice was the name of the game – no matter the human cost. Admirably though, sidestepping any sort of exploitation, Wang and Zhang avoid portraying this cohort as wicked.

Fans of “The Handmaid’s Tale” may be thankful Gilead and its cruel totalitarian regime are fictional and far removed from the real world as they know it. Praise be. But the upsetting truth is a handful of the horrors we witness in most episodes of Hulu’s bleak dystopian series-parallel those suffered by the generation forced to live through China’s one-child policy. No spoilers here as to what’s on the docket, but let’s just say, if the words “fetus in a jar” spring to mind, you’re not far off.

Earlier in 2019, Rayka Zehtabachi’s Oscar-winning documentary “Period. End of Sentence” was released, and despite nobly underscoring the equally concerning problem of skewed perceptions of menstruation in India, it wasn’t all that hot in technical terms. Likewise, while Sundance-winner “One Child Nation” does an outstanding job of highlighting a little-known true horror tale, groundbreaking filmmaking it isn’t.

The one-child policy spanned a long 36 years, so it would be impossible for Wang and Zhang to cover every facet of society and life into which its insidious, toxic poison managed to creep. And nor would we want them to. Yet, the pair investigate an astonishingly broad miscellany of its effects, offering an overstuffed snapshot. Even if the end product is mostly satisfying, it’s impossible not to wonder whether the co-directors bit off a little more than they could chew in their 89-minute runtime, reaching for quantity over quality. One or two areas touched upon certainly warrant a whole documentary of their own, but greater depth on these would have been ideal here.

Even so, “One Child Nation” is a stark, affecting piece that’ll leave you boiling-over with fury and amazed at the power of persuasion.