“ONE CHILD NATION”: Dead babies

“ONE CHILD NATION” My rating: B+ (Opens Sept. 30 at the Glenwood Arts) 90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Published August 29, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

Americans — thoughtful ones, anyway — know all about collective guilt.

After all, under our belts we’ve got 200 years of slavery, the decimation of the continent’s aboriginal population, internment camps for loyal Japanese Americans…and President Donald J. Trump.

That’s just for starters.

But we’re given a run for our money by China, which for nearly 40 years enforced its one-child-per-family rule with millions of involuntary sterilizations and abortions.

The  moral weight of that experience is at the heart of “One Child Nation,” a devastating documentary that starts out as an examination of personal history and quickly becomes an indictment of an entire culture.

The film follows Nanfu Wang (who co-directs with Jialing Zhang) as she returns to her birthplace in China (she’s now a U.S. resident).  Visiting her native village in Jiangxi Province she interviews older citizens — including her schoolteacher mother and the burg’s former mayor — about the one-child policy that was in effect from 1979 to 2015.

At the time it was the largest example of social engineering in the world; the filmmakers display TV ads, posters, parades and songs designed to make the one-child effort as important as buying bonds during wartime.

Mostly Wang’s subjects toe the party line, declaring the policy a great success which prevented mass starvation and allowed China to slowly build itself into the economic powerhouse we see today. They’re proud to have done their duty and by doing so to have guaranteed the survival of their country.

But bit by bit horror stories come slithering out.  The former mayor talks about standing to one side, shamefully unable to act or to interfere when authorities arrested women found to be illegally pregnant.

A midwife sorrowfully estimates she was responsible for as many as 20,000 forced abortions — often involving weeping, pleading women who had to be tied down for the operation.  Many of those aborted fetuses were late-termers capable of surviving outside the womb. They were strangled. This same woman now devotes her life to good deeds, hoping to expunge the bad karma she has built up over decades.

At one point the filmmakers stumble across a dumpster filled with snapshots of aborted babies.

Director Wang — who often appears on camera with her subjects — is an ideal reporter. She gets people to open up, but she never judges.

And by virtue of being Chinese she is able to provide insights denied a Western observer. She notes that she bears a man’s name, reflecting her parents’ desperate desire to have a son.  In fact, this cultural bias toward male babies has for centuries led to the widespread murders of infant girls. During the one-child decades the births of girls often were not even reported to authorities; these unwanted babies were quickly disposed of in the hope that the next pregnancy would produce a boy.

One of Wang’s uncles recalls leaving his baby daughter in a marketplace, thinking someone would take her. He reports — almost sorrowfully, but not quite — that he discovered her dead body days later, covered with mosquito bites.

At the one-hour mark the film changes direction.  Wang and Zhang examine the industry that has grown up around unwanted baby girls, who continue to be abandoned by their families. These infants are collected illegally by gangs of scavengers, taken to orphanages, and then sold to Western couples desperate to be parents.

Amazingly, given the incendiary subject matter, “One Child Nation” avoids sensationalism.  The overall tone is less outrage than one of sober melancholy.

But do not think that Wang is on the fence.  While not resorting to overt polemics she has fashioned her documentary to make a clear point:  Both the forced abortions mandated by the Chinese government and the anti-abortion fury in the United States are founded on  paternalistic models in which women are second-class citizens,  incapable of acting on their own behalf and not to be trusted to make their own reproductive choices.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.