All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

GWEN

Producer: Hilary Bevan Jones and Tom Nash
Director: William McGregor
Writer: William McGregor
Stars: Eleanor Worthingto-Cox, Maxine Peake, Jodie Innes, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Gwion Glyn, Richard Harrington and Richard Elfyn
Studio: RLJ Entertainment

C+

A bleak drama about women struggling to survive in the male-dominated, industrializing countryside of Wales in the nineteenth century, “Gwen” at first carries suggestions of supernatural evil afoot, but ultimately William McGregor’s debut film discloses that the real horror lies in man’s capacity for cruelty and greed. While visually striking and atmospheric, the film is hobbled by its narrative murkiness.

The audience’s perspective is that of the titular character (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a teen scraping out a living with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes) on a desolate plot of land in craggy Snowdonia, where they raise potatoes and keep a flock of sheep. Elen’s husband is gone—she tells the girls that he’s off soldiering, and will return to them, though there are suggestions that’s not the case.

The region is suffused with death: a family living nearby has died suddenly—it’s announced they succumbed to cholera—and the heart of an animal is nailed to the door of the women’s isolated stone cabin, a perpetually gloomy place where Gwen hears strange noises, sees wispy apparitions, and has nightmares—while the wind shrieks constantly outside under a slate-gray sky. The mood of foreboding is made all the more dire by Elen’s strictness with the girls, which can take a sharp, nasty edge.

Elen is also subject to increasingly frequent fits, which lead her to shut herself up alone in her room at night, cutting her arms, though whether as a primitive mode of medicinal bloodletting or as some sort of occult practice is not clear. Gwen seeks help for her from a kindly local doctor (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), but while he provides a bottle of medicine, he explains that she will need to pay for it, since his master, the local mine baron, is not a generous man.

In fact, Elen is in particular disfavor with him, since she is a hold-out against his effort to expand his empire by acquiring more land for his quarry. When the family’s sheep suddenly die and their potatoes spoil, it might be his work—or, alternatively, the result of some inexplicable malignant force. What’s clear is that as Elen’s malady becomes public, local hostility to her grows, despite the sympathy shown toward Gwen by one young man.

The escalating mini-war reaches a climax in a stunning act of brutality, an attack on the family’s home by a mob of torch-carrying locals, preceded by a direct assault on Elen that she and Gwen respond to with extreme prejudice. But as is noted at one point, if a man steals a loaf of bread they put him in jail, but if he steals a farm, they make him a lord; the conclusion of “Gwen” is depicted as inevitable, given the callousness of the time and place.

What most stands out in “Gwen” is the performance of Worthington-Cox, who gives Gwen a look of haunted desperation that is compelling throughout. Peake does good work, too, but in a distinctly subordinate role, and no one else in the cast really stands out.

The other exceptional element in the film is the visuals. Taken together Laura Ellis Cricks’ production design, the set decoration by Candice Marchlewski and Ellie Pash, Dinah Collin’s costumes and Adam Etherington’s cinematography create an ambience of darkness and dread that overlays the veneer of historical accuracy with a gothic sensibility. The backgrounds give the story a Dickensian feel in which Worthington-Cox, in particular, can shine.

And yet while one can respect much about “Gwen,” overall its dilatory pacing—courtesy of McGregor and his editor Mark Towns—italicizes the fact that the script is somewhat muddled and confused. Perhaps that is intended to reflect the title character’s state of mind, but it doesn’t make things any more accessible for a viewer.

One can therefore chalk the movie up with the old cliché—a promising but uneven debut.

ONE CHILD NATION

Producer: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang, Christoph Jorg, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements and Carolyn Hepburn
Director: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: Amazon Studios

A-

The Chinese government continues to insist that its “one-child” policy, which was on the books from 1979 to 2015, was a success, and in purely numeral terms it was. As this documentary by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang notes, it did “solve” a perceived problem of overpopulation due to a birth rate that, it was believed, threatened the country’s socio-economic future by preventing an estimated 300,000-400,000 births.

But the film also shows that the consequences were horrifying, in terms of brutal enforcement and the emotional devastation it inflicted. “One Child Nation” is a sobering indictment of the harm a government can do to its people when it attempts to engineer social policy.

Wang, who co-directed the film with Zhang as well as shooting it in collaboration with Yuanchen Liu and then editing the footage to its present eighty-five minute running-time, was born to a village family while the policy was in force, but her parents received an exemption: they could have a second child, but only with a five-year interval between the two. When her younger brother was born, he became the apple of their parents’ eyes, chosen to continue school while Wang was sent to work. She later emigrated to the United States and became a mother herself, inspiring her to undertake this, her first film, from a sense of personal need.

In a way Wang was fortunate. Couples wanted their one child to be a male who would carry on the family name, so often female infants were simply abandoned, to be picked up by strangers or left simply to die. Some were “collected” by traffickers who sold them to orphanages, which then profited by putting them up for adoption abroad. Other children were simply seized from rural families as the equivalent of fines, and then offered to prospective adoptive parents outside the country as orphans—at a hefty price, of course.

Even that procedure, as unsavory as it might seem, was relatively benign compared to what was happening elsewhere. Forced sterilization and abortion was commonplace, sometimes through compliance prodded by a vast propaganda program, but often by compulsion of a far more physical kind. The number of victims, both the dead and the sad survivors, is simply incalculable.

Wang begins her investigation with her own family, interviewing her mother (who still believes that cannibalism would have occurred in China had the policy not been imposed by the party) and brother, who still feels guilty about how he was preferred over her. She talks to an uncle who weeps remembering the daughter he abandoned in the market, only to watch her die, and an aunt whose daughter was given up for adoption.

She then moves to a wider circle of locals, like the village head who presided—reluctantly, he says—in enforcement, and “public health” workers who actually performed operations, like a midwife who estimates she performed tens of thousands of sterilizations and abortions over the thirty-year period and who, under advice from a priest, now aids couples dealing with problems of infertility in order to make amends.

Wang continues her outward reach, interviewing traffickers who were punished for taking advantage of the policy and a journalist named Jiaoming Pang, now residing in Hong Kong, who left the mainland when his investigations revealed the horrors which the one-child policy caused. (Given the current state of affairs in Hong Kong, he might have to flee again before long.) Viewers should be warned that his photographs of abandoned fetuses left in landfills are deeply disturbing.

Having taken viewers down what might be described the circles of a man-made hell, Wang offers a measure of solace by discussing the work of American Brian and Long Lan Stuy, adoptive parents themselves, who have developed a database to try to reunite Chinese adoptees with their biological families. Using it she tries to find her aunt’s daughter, and in another case an adoptee reconnects with her twin sister in China.

Zhang also notes the replacement in 2015 of the one-child policy with another that prescribing two as the “perfect” number, and gives examples of the new propaganda campaign to promote the idea—made necessary by the reality that there are now simply too few young people to care for the country’s aging population—ironically, a result of the previous policy. Can the failure of one experiment in social engineering be corrected by another? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, this shattering documentary is hard to watch and hard to forget.