Review of Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation

Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Megan Elias

One Child Nation (2019). 89 minutes. Directed Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. Featuring Nanfu Wang, Zaodi Wang, and Zhimei Wang.

During the era of the one child policy in China, Nanfu Wang, director of One Child Nation, was born. Unlike many girls born during this era, she survived. Her mother describes the heartbreaking story of how she helped her younger brother discard his own newborn daughter at the local market. She speaks about how they were unable to leave the baby in broad daylight, so they went at night and left her in a basket at the meat counter with twenty dollars, hoping someone would take the money and the baby and raise her. She was there for two days and two nights. Nobody wanted her and she eventually died.

While this scenario probably sounds inhumane and cruel to the average American, the film explains that this was a reality for many Chinese families during the one child policy. With the Chinese population increasing at astounding rates, the Chinese government saw the future of the country heading towards national famine and tragedy. For government officials, the one-child policy was the only solution; and this solution was heavily enforced.

One Child Nation took me by surprise. I had heard of the one child policy in social studies classes throughout high school, but I never knew about the ways that Chinese families were impacted and the unfathomable decisions they were pushed to make because of it.

This film does an outstanding job of grasping the audience’s attention with a steady flow of topics, which is something that I really enjoyed about it. Wang is constantly presenting different people, stories, and visuals which kept me engaged and made me want to know more. There was always something new and captivating about the subject. As an American who had very little prior knowledge about the one child policy, Wang’s methods of presenting information made me feel entrapped in the topic and its complexity.

What made this film so captivating besides the topic is the way that Wang intertwined her artistry through cinematography, soundtrack, and graphic visuals. One of my favorite collections of moments during the film was when we are shown the propaganda that engulfed China on its walls and billboards. Despite being written in Chinese, the film takes advantage of graphic design to tastefully translate the messages on the screen right beside it. We see a still shot of writing on a wall in Chinese as a subtitle translating the words slowly fades in to tell us what it says in English. Another thing that I love about the cinematography in these shots is the visual presence of progress. The first set of images shown are all strong messages promoting the policy which at times can sound threatening. One of the more hostile messages shown reads “If one person refuses sterilization, her entire family will suffer.” This contrasts with the shots of propaganda images at the end that not only have more positive messages promoting families to have multiple children, but they feature Wang and her own child standing right next to the words. As a product of the policy, Wang’s presence in these shots shows that she not only survived the time period, but she also lived to have a child of her own. Instances such as these show how powerful imagery can be, especially with complicated topics like the one child policy. 

Something that Wang utilizes in this film is her Chinese roots. She relates on a personal level to the people who lived through the one child policy era. She speaks with a variety of people ranging from the former village chief in his home to her own family members in their living rooms where Wang grew up. Each interview felt natural. Interviewees were typically captured in their own personal living space, which allows the audience to feel even more connected to the people and their stories. It is also important to note that Wang did a large portion of the filming on her own, keeping that familial atmosphere without a large scale crew to make interviewees nervous as they expressed themselves on camera. 

Another element that Wang uses is personal stories. This film is essentially a collection of personal recollections from the one child policy era. We meet a remorseful midwife who had to perform a staggering amount of sterilization procedures and live abortions. As a way to atone for the actions she now regrets, she helps families struggling with infertility. She takes us through her home to show room after room whose walls are covered with flags sent by families that she helped to have children. We meet an American family that works to connect Chinese adoptees with their biological families who were forced to give them up during the policy. They have photographs of hundreds of babies whom they wish to match up with birth parents. Each person uses their story to bring forth awareness about the widespread effects of the policy, which through their adoption practices now affect parents and children around the world.

As a young American woman one of the most striking aspects about One Child Nation for me is its general message, which could be described as a woman’s right to choose. Wang reflects at the end about her own life now that she has started a family in America. She describes how fortunate she feels to have the freedom to have children without restriction. While she was born during the policy, her family was fortunate enough to have another child as long as it was a boy and they were five years apart. That was an exception made for those living in the countryside. Having a brother, Wang experienced the joys of having a companion. She wants her son to have a sibling just as she did. One thing that stuck with me is her point about how she escaped a country where women were forced to abort and moved to a country where women are demanding their government to be able to exercise that fundamental right without regulations that so many states are trying to pass which curtail access to abortion as much as possible. She says that those concepts may seem contradictory, but in a general sense, both are about taking away a woman’s control over her own body. Moments like this show the importance of having as many women filmmakers as possible, especially in the world of documentary, where stories deal so closely with the realities we experience. 

One Child Nation is a phenomenal film that has been deservedly celebrated by critics and audiences. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was awarded the festival’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary Award. The film was also shortlisted for the Oscars.

You can watch One Child Nation on Amazon Prime. To see what else Nanfu Wang has done, take a look at her Wikipedia page. Learn more about Celia by visiting her profile.