Mothers (Ma Ma Di Quan Zhuang): Film Review

Mothers Still 2013 H
A riveting documentary that speaks volumes about mainland China's official family-planning policies and the insensitivity they breed among apparatchiks -- and the pain among the masses. 

Chinese independent filmmaker Xu Huijing's documentary follows a group of village cadres hunting down young mothers who refuse to be sterilized according to the government's "one-child policy" regulations.

The mind-boggling thing about Xu Huijin's new documentary Mothers doesn't lie with the the cynicism which drives low-level apparatchiks in coaxing or coercing women in a small Chinese village to be sterilized. What astounds is the officials' lack of qualms in allowing their modus operandi to be recorded on tape -- they are shown agitating for a longtime refusenik's children to be kicked out of school so as to get her to relent, and later joke about just grabbing her to go under the knife in the van they're travelling in -- and their on-screen admission how their work is more about fulfilling quotas than the state's high-sounding population-policy objectives.

This indifference about having their indifference and inhumanity caught on camera illustrates how such dysfunction is now very much ingrained into the bureaucratic or even social psyche; what could have been positioned as villains in melodrama are now shown as just banal servants to a cold political order. And when the film also features the cadres as toddler-loving beings while off duty -- one of them oversees a temple commemorating a goddess of child-giving, another dotes on his baby at home when he's not trying to get women sterilized at work -- it's evident that Xu's indictment lies with the system rather than just individual antagonists.

Revealing yet restraining from simplistic judgements, Mothers -- who has just won second prize at the annual Chinese Documentary Festival in Hong Kong on Sep. 20 -- is poised to feature in more festivals and international human-rights-themed programs, after its appearance at home at the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival and then abroad at the Jeonju International Film Festival and then the Sheffield Doc/Fest in Britain.

In the film's prologue, Xu appears briefly on camera as his voiceover explains how his mother had told him how he, as a second child, "wasn't supposed to be born". But he was, amidst a time when the Chinese government was frantic in implementing their family planning policies: city-dwellers could only have one child, and rural citizens have the leeway of having two. Extra babies would bring about a fine; but for those living in villages, women who have given birth to two children are legally bound for sterilization -- and just like many of Beijing's directives, this opens the way to confusion and chaos on the ground, as municipal officials demand party cadres set a definite quota of women which have to be operated on every year.

And Mothers is about how a group of low-level cadres in a small hamlet in the northwestern Chinese province of Shanxi struggle to fulfill that request, as if it's a divine message they could not defy -- a religious metaphor brought to mind when the film begins with images of a bombastic rite celebrating the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Leading the way is Zhang Qingmei (pictured), the village's "director of women's care" who is at once the officer responsible for getting women sterilized, and also the shaman taking care of the local fertility-themed temple: showing the director and his camera around the shrine, she freely talked about Mao as having "attained sainthood" and is "akin to an emperor" -- descriptions which could readily be seen as reactionary, superstitious talk in official party discourse.

Zhang's beliefs in Mao is just part of the retrogressive attitudes being perpetuated in the village: the film also shows children singing a ditty about a man who tries to kill himself for not being to "buy a wife", while the deputy village head Zhang Guohong (yes, the people actually allowed themselves to be named in full) deploys every trick in his bureaucrats' book in forcing reluctant young mothers to be operated on. What this means is constant bargaining with his charges about the approval of hukou,a domestic registration without which individuals could not enjoy full citizens' rights in their locale; in another instance, the man is seen actually offering to pay the women to get operated on, so that he could come up with the numbers as dictated to him from above.

With its abundance of telling DV-filmed sequences about the desperation of these officials, and an edit which brings everything together as if it's a documentary-style thriller, Mothers offers a riveting viewing and a revealing picture of the pain brought about by insensitive political dictums. And the torment can be very real: the documentary ends with the officials' elusive quarry, a young woman called Rongrong, finally apprehended (probably because of her children being suspended from their studies) and limping her way off the cadres' van, and then lying sullen and pained in bed.

Xu's final voiceover -- delivered over a static image of the brown, rustic landscape in which the village is located – stated how a leading Chinese government official has hinted at a possible rethink over the now almost three-decades-old "one-child policy". For the mothers in Mothers and the society they are supposed to be part of, it's perhaps too late.


Venue: Chinese Documentary Festival, Hong Kong

Production Companies: EVO Productions, CNEX Foundation Limited

Director: Xu Huijing

Producers: Ben Tsiang, Hai Zhiqiang

Associate Producer: Warren Chien

Executive Producers: Shijian, Chang Chao-wei, Ruby Chen

Cinematographer: Xu Huijing

Editors: Liao Qingsong, Xu Huijing, Huang Yiling

Music: Liu Qi

International Distributor: CNEX Foundation Limited

In Mandarin

No ratings, 68 minutes