Review: One Child Nation Reveals the Personal Toll of China’s Devastating Population Policy

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, One Child Nation doesn’t just tackle the seemingly endless and nefarious ways in which the government of China enforced its controversial policy that restricted its citizens to only one child per family. It’s also a very personal journey for filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who was born while the policy was in effect (which it was for more than 30 years). Wang (who co-directed with Jialing Zhang) interviews members of her own family and discovers some genuinely shocking details about the lengths certain aunts and uncle went to in order to ensure that their single child was a boy. But that’s only the beginning of the devastation caused by this sweeping rule.

One Child Nation
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

The reasons for the policy were certainly sound: an independent study found that China was well on the way to dying off if families didn’t stop having so many children. Resources were on the way to running out, and before long, the policy was instituted and the propaganda machine kicked in, with messages about the benefits of fewer children being injected into billboards, songs, even opera. Wang (Hooligan Sparrow, I Am Another You) narrates and guides us through her own experiences in rural China, where families were allowed more children as long as they were born at least five years apart (she has a brother exactly five years younger than she is, who was treated like a prince and given advantages she rarely was).

As the filmmakers begin to uncover what life was like during the One Child Policy, the stories become more and more grim. A midwife admits that among her duties were not just abortions, but sometimes abortions for women eight or nine months pregnant, whose children were able to survive outside the womb, forcing her to kill them. Later, there are stories covering everything from forced sterilization to abandoning girl babies in open markets, effectively leaving them to die. Perhaps the most shocking tales involve the government forcibly taking extra children from their homes and putting them in sanctioned orphanages to be sold/adopted to Westerners. This practice becomes an actual source of huge income for the government for many years, and since the policy just ended in 2015, the repercussions of the these abductions and illegal adoptions will be felt for generations.

Wang comes back to China from America and grows interested in these stories shortly after the birth of her first child. Many of the friends and family she interviews (including many who were part of the machine that enforced the policy) use similar language when it comes to why they didn’t resist—“What was I supposed to do? I was just following the letter of the law.” Feelings of powerlessness crop up, especially when China started framing the policy as a War on Population. One Child Nation is easily one of the finest and most unnerving documentaries you’ll see all year, and a big reason behind that is that it doesn’t feel like a history lesson; it feels like a depiction of something in the moment—a history so new that the bruises to the soul are still fresh and sore.

The film is playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.