To see what China’s one-child policy has done to the most populous country on Earth, you just have to look around you, said acclaimed filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai. “There is often one child now to six grown-ups. You have the four grandparents and two parents for one child. It’s a bit unbalanced,” the director added with not a little understatement. “So Long, My Son”, which won its stars Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun the best actor award at the Berlin film festival earlier this year, plunges audiences into the ocean of pain and heartbreak the policy caused.
The tragic story of a couple whose only son is drowned in an accident, is an epic account of how families were bent and buckled during the 36 years of the world’s biggest demographic experiment. “It made me realise to what extent we as Chinese people lived through something that was completely out of the ordinary and unique in the world,” Wang said just before the film opened in France.
“That is what pushed me to shoot the film,” said the director, who made his name in the West with “Beijing Bicycle”, a prize-winner at Berlin back in 2001. “Generally speaking people in China don’t live for themselves, or put themselves forward,” he said.
‘We don’t control our lives’
“We are not in control of our own lives” and everything can be changed by the “smallest directive from on high”. “People do things for the collective, for the country. That is why every time there is a new policy, even one which has a huge impact on their lives, people tend to bend to it.” When the one-child policy was first adopted in 1979, “people kind of understood” it was in the country’s economic interests, Wang said, with three-quarters of the population said to support it. “Of course there were people who fought against it but after 30 years people had accepted it.”
Finally getting rid of it four years ago was “a good thing”, Wang argued, because “it allows people to be more in charge of their own lives, to have more freedom on what kind of family they want to build.” But by the time it was replaced by a two-child policy in 2016, the single child family “had become anchored” in society, the new norm reinforced by the rise of the middle classes. The “rush to make money” has effectively sustained it. “Even if people can now have more children, they opt not to have any more because there is too much economic pressure,” he said. Wang is one of the leading film-makers of China’s “Sixth Generation” that includes a wave of talented directors like Zhang Yuan, Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye.
But like many he is worried about where the industry is going, with a ramping up of censorship since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. One of the country’s most famous directors, Zhang Yimou, the maker of “Raise the Red Lantern”, was forced to withdraw his latest film, “One Second”, in February on the eve of the Berlin festival. Another Chinese movie, “Better Days”, that had also been scheduled to show in the German capital, failed to get the go-ahead in time from Beijing.
“Summer of Changsha”-which to Western eyes contained nothing to scare the horses-was shown at the Cannes film festival in May, but without its makers. And on Wednesday the premiere of the war epic “The Eight Hundred”-billed as the Chinese “Dunkirk” showing a heroic defeat to the invading Japanese-was cancelled at the last minute after being deemed “inappropriate”. China recently introduced regulations that require movies to be given a “dragon seal” of approval before films can be screened.
“The pulling recently of these films raises questions,” Wang said. “Before you had to get the go-ahead from the censor concerning the content of the film” to show it at festivals, “and then a second one for it to be released”. “Now the two have been put together. To have permission withdrawn is extremely serious for a film,” he added.–AFP