Rating: (3.5 stars)
In 1979, when the Chinese government decreed that couples could have only one child, no exception was made for twins. The riveting “One Child Nation,” which won Sundance’s 2019 Documentary Grand Prize, explains what would happen: one twin, most likely female, would be torn from her sibling and parents and sent to an orphanage, the first stop in a process that often led to overseas adoption.
If that sounds abhorrent — and, of course, it does — those children were nonetheless the lucky ones. Before such adoptions became common, the movie reveals, infant girls were often abandoned, or simply killed.
This is personal for “One Child Nation” co-director and narrator Nanfu Wang, who made the equally powerful “Hooligan Sparrow,” a 2016 exposé of Chinese school officials who raped teenage students. Born in rural Jiangxi in 1985, Wang grew up the older sister in a two-child family — a rarity permitted in rural areas under certain circumstances. Now based in the United States, the filmmaker visited China after the birth of her first child. She encountered some regrets but few apologies and a continued preference for boys over girls.
Wang had a lot of questions for her parents, who chose to educate her brother rather than her. Her aunt and uncle have disturbing stories to tell, underscored by the harrowing remembrances of workers who regularly discovered abandoned babies (more often dead than alive) and discarded fetuses.
From Wang’s immediate family, she and co-director Jialing Zhang move to people with a broader perspective. The most haunted of these is a midwife who was required to perform more abortions and sterilizations than deliveries. To atone for her role in mass infanticide, she now confines her work to helping infertile couples.
Also remarkably candid is a trafficker who says he helped send some 10,000 babies to orphanages to supply a foreign adoption market that absorbed at least 130,000 Chinese children. This trade thrived until 2015, when China noticed a dearth of young people and proclaimed itself a two-child country.
Across the Pacific, the movie introduces us to a Utah couple who adopted three Chinese girls. The pair then built a database of other adoptees that has helped connect some of them with their biological families. Among the Utahans’ contacts is a Chinese 16-year-old who’s learning English to communicate with her twin, who now lives in the United States.
“One Child Nation” covers a lot of a territory, and many of its topics need to be covered in more depth. But the directors structure the narrative effectively, and they deftly expand from the personal to the historical. This is an important film, if often a difficult one to watch.
Comic relief comes in the form of posters, spray-painted slogans and song-and-dance routines that the Chinese government used in its single-child indoctrination. Yet these are, in their own way, as chilling as the policy’s brutal outcome. “One Child Nation” includes old and new examples of family-planning propaganda: they are essentially the same — except that a two-child family is now deemed as ideal as a one-child one was, before 2015. The rules may change, but the authoritarian mind-set never wavers.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some disturbing images and brief strong language. In English and Mandarin with subtitles. 90 minutes. (The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)