The Residue of A Pre-empted Loss: Xu Hui Jing’s Mothers (2013)

Contributed by Tanvi Rajvanshi


Xu Hui Jing’s Mothers, filmed in 2010, follows a small group of town council members who forcefully sterilised women with more than one child to ensure the implementation of China’s infamous one-child policy. At first glance, it seems the film is allowing forced sterilisation to speak for its own brutality. However, delving a little deeper, one realises that the filmmaker is imbuing within the film his inherent frustrations whilst simultaneously donning the appearance of a third-party observer.

Xu's Narration
Filmmaker’s Xu’s Narration at the beginning of the film

A documentarian typically wears the cloak of absence to make their audience believe in the authenticity of the reality they see on screen, as though that reality has not gone through layers of deliberate artistic choices made at every stage of filmmaking. Yet, in Mothers, Xu begins with a personal anecdote. He describes how as a second child, his mother would often tell him that he was not supposed to be born. Here, not only is our documentarian supposed to be absent by virtue of his craft, he is also supposed to be absent by virtue of his nation’s law. Despite this, Xu exists – and because of his own existence, his film exists. The ‘documentary’ tag should not fool the viewer into thinking that this film is merely an objective look at this situation in a small town in China. Rather, Xu’s choice to begin his film from his own standpoint preconditions the audience to see the rest of the film from the perspective of someone who was not supposed to exist. Coupled with the choice to make a documentary, where Xu is supposed to be an ‘absent’ filmmaker-observer, his personal interjection into this illusion of ‘objective reality’ unambiguously demonstrates his motivations to disregard any ideology that dictates who should exist and who shouldn’t.

To say that this film exposes the plight of women being forcefully sterilised by command of a communist government’s law would be a crude summary at best. In fact, by deliberately choosing to follow the town officials as they attempt to meet sterilisation quotas, Xu takes a step away from the ‘government versus the individual’ discourse to highlight the dangers of blindly worshipping an ideology without thinking if it holds any relevance in this day and age. In the beginning of the film there is a scene showing an elaborate procession in honour of Mao’s birthday. This scene then transitions into a rally, calling women to the birth control centre for sterilisation. With this transition, the viewer is forced to make that connection between Mao and the one-child policy, which was his brainchild in 1979 when China was allegedly facing an overpopulation crisis. The loudspeaker rallies demanding women to go to the birth control centre – juxtaposed with speeches praising Mao to the heights of Gods and Emperors – present lawfully-mandated sterilisation as an of solidarity with the Great Leader’s values. Rather than appealing to the women from an educated point of view, in this film Xu implies the authorities use rhetoric focused on values such as obedience.

Qing-mei talking about Mao in the temple
Qing-mei talking about Mao in the local temple

In reality, it is clear that for the officials themselves, forcing women to the birth control centre has more to do with practical needs than beliefs and values. Zhang Guohong, the deputy village head, candidly says that in an environment where the cost of living is rising, the number of children people can afford to raise is automatically going down. He admits that the policy is no longer required, but for him, enforcing the sterilisations has more to do with meeting quotas and keeping his job. Instead of solely focusing on the viewpoint of the obvious victims, the mothers, Xu gives the town council members their space on screen, presenting them as victims of the system as well. Moreover, this perspective allows Xu to expose how the state ideology can manipulate the employees to the extent that they start seeing sterilisation as just a matter of numbers and quotas. In this way, Xu’s film is not simply a criticism of forced sterilisations, but rather, a criticism of the ideology that gave rise to and perpetuated this practice.

Overview of dusty plateau
Overview of the dusty plateau

Xu asserts the irrelevance of the one-chid policy in an economically expanding China, an irrelevance which has caused the government to lift the policy as of 2016. But perhaps what is most haunting about the film is its emphasis on the irreversible damage of the policy. There is a shot of a dusty sandy plateau woven into the film, making repeated appearances in the beginning, middle, and end. In fact, Xu weaves this shot into the fabric of the film far too many times for it to simply be an establishing shot contextualising the situation in its geography. To me, this shot is visually representative of infertility. When we think of fertile land, we think of vast, lush greenery. In stark contrast, the lifeless brown of the plateaus extend the infertility issue beyond the individual human, further highlighting how our actions have an impact that is much wider than ourselves. Just as it’s almost impossible to transform an infertile dusty plateau into a lush fertile forest, it may be near impossible to reverse population decline when an entire generation of mothers can no longer bear children.

Watching this film today, it’s all the more aggravating because even though the policy no longer exists, the infertility will continue on for decades to come. This frustration is the director’s intended effect, achieved by making clear directorial decisions to present this issue from his own critical stance. At one level, Xu’s film serves as a warning of the dangers of such extreme policy enforcement measures. But, rather than ending on a naive note, Xu remains cognisant of how recovering from this kind of an irreplaceable loss will require a lot more than simply lifting the one-child policy.


Tanvi Rajvanshi completed her Bachelor of Arts degree from the National University of Singapore, majoring in English Literature. A few semesters away from graduation, she realised her interest in film had accidentally turned into a minor in Film Studies. This prompted the discovery that perhaps not all texts worth studying are necessarily written. Recently, Tanvi participated in the Youth Jury and Critics Programme for the 27th Singapore International Film Festival. She currently poses expertly as a Research Assistant for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.


About the Writer