Fresh off its Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and already one of the favorites to be on the shortlist for an Academy Award early next year, Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation is a charged vision smart enough to get out of its own way and present a harrowing topic with blunt force clarity. It’s a history lesson. It’s a savage personal memoir. And it’s a film with important ideas that resonates loudly even more so today.
Realizing the possibility of population overgrowth and resource in-sustainability, the Chinese government instituted a national policy in 1979 mandating no more than one child per family. And since this is a culture preoccupied with the idea of patriarchy, the policy ultimately placed damning consequences on the females in its society. Not only does One Child Nation reveal the moral quagmires that existed in China at the time, but it goes on to uncover the appalling cycle of abandoned children and widespread corruption that still reverberates in households on both sides of the ocean to this day.
As someone tangentially affected by the times (Wang did have a brother after the policy was loosened to allow a five-year gap between siblings), One Child Nation is exhaustive journalism, fueled first by personal curiosity and then later by anger. Documenting everything with a steady sense of purpose — from interviewing people directly involved in propagating the policy to those forced to live with the drastic and inhumane consequences — Wang’s film is a cry for the lost.
Outside of the talking heads and scholarly reverberations of the nation’s policy, Wang’s film goes even further to document the human fallout. And it goes to places that may rattle even the most jaded. It’s hard not to get emotional as the film shows us widespread evidence of alarming atrocities. First discovered by a local artist as he photographed trash heaps, he soon noticed little yellow medical waste bags that housed a repellent secret. Dotting the unsanitary landscape, the policy clearly devalued human life to the point of nonchalance and gave the artist plenty of visual evidence to lead a charge of change.
Hardly a subject that needs accentuating, One Child Nation is edited and structured for maximum effect. Transitioning to something a little more promising in its latter half, when Wang meets an American couple working diligently to re-locate adopted children here in the United States with their birth families in China, the film attains some hopeful melancholy. However, it’s also then we learn of the embedded corruption behind some of the adoptive agencies and their American agreements. Like everything else, there’s always a Big Business profit lurking behind the downtrodden.
It’s in this second half where Wang attempts to find glimmers of hope in the darkness. It’s probably not enough to erase the shameful past — which even China understands was a mistake with its newest slogan of every family needs at least two children! — but it’s a small step in the right direction. Wang’s film, however, is a large step.
Portions of this review were originally published when the documentary bowed at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival.
Once Child Nation opens in limited release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, August 16.