By DIANA CHENG
AAP Film Review
CALGARY (Jan. 3, 2015) — January of a new year always rings in the excitement of the Awards Season.
As part of their Oscar Buzz series, The Maysles Documentary Center in New York is screening the short doc “One Child” on January 5, 2015. Asian CineVision and EnMaze Pictures are co-sponsors of the event, with director Zijian Mu present for a Q & A after the screening. Mu’s short film has already garnered accolades as the winner of the 2013 Sidney Gross Memorial Prize for Investigative Journalism and the 41st Student Academy Award (2014). Recently it is listed as one of the Top 8 Documentary Short Subject of the Year from fifty-eight eligible entries. The list will be shortened further when the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards are announced come January 15th.
On May 12, 2008, an 8-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan, China, killed 90,000 people, among them 5,000 children; hardest hit was Beichuan, director Mu’s hometown. Forty minutes is an unrealistically short time to depict a loss that is hard to comprehend, but Mu has shown his depth and skills in capturing the raw emotions and the tolls resulting from the disaster. Losing a child is always a parent’s worst nightmare, but for the parents of these five thousand children, they have to suffer the unspeakable devastation of losing their single child, a compliance of the one-child policy stipulated by the Chinese government since 1979.
Three families opened up and shared their painful experience with Mu in his documentary. Yang Jianfen, 49, lost her grade-one daughter in the Earthquake. She leads the filmmaker into the ruins of her daughter’s room, wipes away the debris and dusts off a photo album of her child. Unable to conceive again at her age, Yang wants to adopt, but her husband at 60 rejects the idea. The painful loss takes a toll on those left behind, shaking up a marriage relationship.
Jiang Hongyou and wife Fu Guangjun are the lucky ones who can give birth to another child; their new daughter has now become their life purpose. Mu has poignantly presented the backdrop of their story. Unlike the sarcasm and pointed critiques like a Michael Moore film, Mu has effectively brought out the issues in a quiet manner, showing words on the screen describing the facts behind the tragedy: the shoddily built Beichuan Middle School, the mass grave of 1,500 students after the quake, and the authorities’ refusal to acknowledge responsibility in the substandard building process. Instead, the ruins, including the bodies buried underneath were bulldozed and covered with a field. The stark words on screen with the background showing a single tree on a green field strike harder than any sharp commentary and criticisms.
Soon their young, new daughter enters kindergarten. We see an interesting depiction of 200 youngsters on the first day of school, bawling loudly and dazed. These ‘reborn’ children, the second one after the death of the first, will be ‘even more spoiled than before’, an unintentional social consequence the one-child policy would bring.
The last person we see is a relatively young grandmother Gu Jiazhen, 57. She lost her daughter, a school teacher, to the earthquake. Gu’s son-in-law later remarried and took his daughter away with him. Gu is left alone. Her conversion to Buddhism may be a form of consolation but not sufficient to numb the unspeakable pain.
Death does not just end a life. It shatters hopes and shaken to the core the views of those living. Mu’s short doc is a subtle yet thought-provoking description of a national tragedy. In a short forty minutes, he has unearthed some fundamental issues that desperately need to be dealt with before the next disaster strikes. Such a voice is a force to reckon with. As the end credits roll, we see these last words: “In loving memory of my cousin Xiadong, July 27, 1994 – May 12, 2008”
Come January 15th we will know if Mu will become a nominee at the 87th Academy Awards. No matter, he has already achieved a lot and shown himself to be a promising filmmaker to watch.
Contact Diana Cheng on Twitter @Arti_Ripples or through her blog Ripple Effects, rippleeffects.wordpress.com.