One Is the Loneliest Number

One Child Nation

by George Wolf

A heartbreaking, sometimes devastating and absolutely necessary history lesson, One Child Nation turns a filmmaker’s very personal story into a profile of shared helplessness.

Nanfu Wang grew up in China during the nation’s strict “one child per family” social policy. Launched in 1979 and added to the Chinese constitution three years later, the policy endured until 2015, leaving scarred generations of parents and children in its wake.

Wang (who also provides frequent narration and commentary) and her co-director Jialing Zhang detail the shocking number of people affected by the policy, the horrifying lengths with which it was enforced, and the splinters of impact it continues to leave on families living oceans apart.

With interviews often reminiscent of Joshua Oppenheimer’s unforgettable doc The Act of Killing, Wang looks back on atrocities with those who personally carried them out. The repeated defense of “I had no choice” is layered with startling and timely reminders of both Orwellian propaganda campaigns and the worldwide struggle for women’s rights.

In another deeply poignant segment, we meet an elderly midwife desperately using the last years of her life in hopes of atonement for her past.

But the success Wang has with many of these interviews only makes the film’s main weakness more glaring.

Where are the women who personally endured the forced abortions and sterilizations? Where are the mothers whose newborn daughters were casually abandoned or sold? Despite an early warning for Wang to “not make trouble,” there is no clear explanation why this seemingly necessary perspective is lacking.

Otherwise, One Child Nation – disturbing as it often is – attacks an inhuman policy with an effectively informed humanity, along with a dire warning about whitewashing history.

“No child should be separated from their parents.”

Imagine that.

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