On November 19, the PGA Awards revealed its Documentary Motion Picture nominations. In China, film magazine Movie View reported on the seven nominees but only mentioned six: “American Factory,” “Advocate,” “Apollo 11,” “The Cave,” “For Sama,” and “Honey Land.” On Weibo, China’s state-controlled microblogging site that has 430 million active users, a few took notice of the post from Movie View, which has 14 million followers. “What’s the seventh one?” read one comment. Another user responded: “The one that can’t be named.”
That would be “One Child Nation,” director Nanfu Wang’s devastating look at the destructive effect of the country’s one-child policy from 1979 to 2015 and its lingering impact on families today. Wang, whose younger brother was raised in defiance of the law, returned to the country to gather covert footage for her revealing project, which Amazon Studios acquired after its January premiere.
“One Child Nation” continues to build awards-season traction in the U.S., but no distributor in China will ever take it on, given that state-mandated distribution censors any cultural products critical of the government or its policies. However, that hasn’t stopped some savvy Chinese audiences from seeing it.
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On November 8, “One Child Nation” was released online to Amazon Prime. The next day, a pirated version surfaced in China with Chinese subtitles, and links to download the film appeared on several social media platforms, including one with a streaming link that showed some 26,000 views; another link reported 13,000 downloads. Overnight, the film went viral on Weibo, with #OneChildNation attached to a range of reactions. The next day, the pirated film and comments were deleted, replaced by a message noting that they “violated relevant Internet laws and regulations.” Even the hashtag was scrubbed, in place of a result stating that “According to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, search results cannot be displayed.”
Wang monitored these events from afar, and shared some screen shots of the posts with English translations. “Will this country ever be good?” one user wrote on Weibo. Another user decried China’s dark past: “Even though I don’t know whether what was shown in the film was the truth or not, if nobody documented the history, we would forget the darkness we had been through.” And a third user complained of having comments deleted twice: “Why wouldn’t the government shut down all pages of related films? What’s the point of censoring all the info that will be known anyway?”
Amazon declined comment, but Wang said she wasn’t surprised by the outcome. “Everything happened really fast in China,” she said. “There’s a chance that the film could circulate this way and that people would be provoked to question the narratives that are challenged by the film. It could spark a political awakening or plant a seed of inquiry in the minds of the people who see the film.”
Like “One Child Nation,” fellow Sundance breakouts “American Factory” and “The Farewell” have yet to see releases in China despite national interest. Even as the country leads global box office and has a sprawling network of theaters that can elevate art house releases to global hits, China’s strict Communist rule challenges any movie that criticizes its policies.
News of Chinese filmmakers facing censorship surface with some regularity, and several Chinese films were pulled from festivals earlier this year after failing to achieve government approval. However, the recent spate of awards contenders with China in their crosshairs reveal a vibrant online ecosystem and grassroots efforts to engage with suppressed culture.
Directors’ Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar’s “American Factory” faced similar conditions. Acquired by Netflix and released in territories around the world, the movie secured producing support from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground. But Netflix doesn’t exist in China, and no distributor there would take on “American Factory,” which captures the messy outcome of Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang acquiring an old GM plant in Ohio, opening a glass factory, and clashing with the pro-union efforts of his American employees.
Unlike “One Child Nation,” Reichert and Bognar’s movie has been covered by the Chinese media thanks to its high-profile subject, the Obamas’ support, and Netflix’s availability in 190 territories. Sources say Netflix engaged in high-level discussions with some Chinese streaming companies, but that fizzled when President Xi Jinping enforced stricter policies on American culture. When Netflix released the movie elsewhere in August, #AmericanFactory began trending on Weibo, streaming copies with Chinese subtitles made the rounds, and countless users weighed in. Unfolding against the backdrop of China’s trade war with the United States, the film instigated divisive reactions as viewers wrestled with whether the movie cast the Chinese or American factory workers in a more sympathetic light.
“I like the narrative of ‘American Factory,'” one user wrote on Weibo. “It focuses on stories on individuals, and dilutes the most obvious labels. There are lots of interviews on individual Chinese workers and American workers, which show their changes of mentality and fates as conflicts intensifies. … As human beings, we shouldn’t draw circles around us and be isolated from each other.”
Many users wrestled with the way “American Factory” shifted between sympathetic windows into the Chinese and American work ethics. “I strongly disagree with the suppression and low self-esteem stuff in the Chinese culture,” one wrote. “But I also find it wrong to be careless and sloppy as Americans. For most jobs, people are just machines, the only difference is whether you are willing to be enslaved or not.”
Another user despaired: “Seeing what the American workers are pursuing – isn’t that the life we yearn for! Working hard, getting reasonable pay, being protected, living in our own house and having a decent life. If you mock the Americans and think they bite off more than they can chew, isn’t it shattering our own dreams!”
Bognar said that he and Reichardt never expected the unusual life for their movie in China. “Normally, filmmakers frown upon piracy, but we’ve been thrilled that the film is getting out there uncensored,” he said. “The postings on social media have been very moving to us. Once we realized how big the story was, we started having these aspirations that the film could spark real conversations about the state of the world for working folks, wherever they are in the world.”
Netflix declined comment, but the company has supported an impact campaign for the movie designed to improve conditions for workers around the world. Bognar noted that due to the vérité-style storytelling that doesn’t sympathize with either side of the workers’ disputes, Chinese media hasn’t rejected the movie outright.
“The movie hasn’t been slammed because it doesn’t overtly criticize the Chinese government,” he said. “We’re questioning global economic systems. …It’s not ‘China bad, America good.’”
Meanwhile, among the major awards contenders that tell Chinese stories, only “The Farewell” stands a good shot at opening in the Mainland. Writer-director Lulu Wang’s delicate drama stars Awkwafina as a woman who helps her family stage a faux wedding as an excuse to visit her ailing grandmother, who has cancer but isn’t allowed to know it. The movie taps into the experiences of a first-generation Chinese-American and her mixed feelings toward her traditionalist roots.
Released by A24 in North America over the summer, “The Farewell” secured Chinese distribution in October through ticketing firm Maoyan Entertainment. However, last week Maoyan canceled the release just two days before its opening. Maoyan offered no explanation for the decision, though sources close to the film said it wasn’t a political move; it may be a response to awards buzz for actress Zhao Shuzhen, who plays the grandmother, and that “The Farewell” would likely come out in China after the Oscars to capitalize on the expected media boost.
While “The Farewell” hasn’t experienced censorship on par with the other recent American productions focused on China, Wang told IndieWire over the summer that securing the dragon seal was no easy feat. “It was definitely a long process,” she said. “There were all these different stages of censorship, and it’s hard to know exactly what they’re OK with and what they’re not.” But “The Farewell” benefited from the personal nature of its narrative. “It deals with family,” Wang said. “It’s not a political film.” (However, an unlicensed clip was uploaded to Weibo earlier this month, where it received nearly 8 million views in two days.)
Wang added that once it comes out, she expects the movie will have no problem with viewers. “I do think it will play well in China for a younger audience because so many young people in China are moving away from home, traveling abroad, or moving to bigger cities within China,” she said. “They’re very much influenced by Western values and media. They are also in a place of transition of figuring out their own identity and how much to subscribe to the Eastern value system, the idea of the collective versus this Western idea of individuality and freedom.” As for the potential censorship to her cut, she said: “All I can do is make what I believe in and the rest is out of my control.”