Screens at CIFF: 10/19 & 10/21
World premiere: 29 September, 2012, CNEX Documentary Film Festival

It's not the exact literal first thing that happens in Mothers, but it's awfully early on that director Xu Hui-jing, in voice-over, explains his particular relationship to China's "One Child" population control policy: he was the second child born to his mother, and has known for much of his life that legally, he's not "supposed" to exist.

From that moment on, there's no doubt that Mothers comes from a place of intense personal meaning, as Xu travels to his home village of Ma to examine with tremendous intimacy the way that people's lives are impacted by the most draconian extreme of that policy, the enforced sterilisation program that has already been visited upon a majority of Ma's adult female population. And not just the lives of the women involved; the film spends just as much time with the bureaucrats responsible for enforcing the program, in particular Zhang Qingmei, the Director of Women's Care for the area, who sees absolutely no conflict between her official duties and her off-hours work caring for a local fertility temple.

It feels downright vindictive to start off by saying something harsh against something that is so evidently a passion project, the primary merits of which are inextricably connected to the director's intimate knowledge of Ma and the people living there, but I'm going to do it anyway: at 68 minutes long, Mothers needs a hell of a lot more focus than it gets in this form. There are, effectively, two different movies jockeying for attention, and both of them have the potential to be very good: on the one hand, Zhang and her colleagues approaching with bland resignation the business of enforcing a cruel and capricious law whose connection to sensible family planning, if there ever was one, has been lost in a thicket of ill-defined laws and governmental; on the other, the families of Ma stuck with the fuzzy end of this particular lollipop, and particularly those women able, through smarts and good luck, to at least temporarily avoid the officials' grasp.

There's clearly a lot of overlap between the two stories, and Xu exploits that for all it's worth, but it still comes down to one thing: this is 68 minutes long, and there are a lot of people to cover and a lot of angles to examine, and there's not enough time to do it properly. What Mothers ends up being in its final form, is something of a procedural thriller, as we're presented with the increasingly frustrated bureaucrats trying to scrounge up women to operate on (this becomes increasingly absurd in a Kafkaesque manner as the film progresses), intercut with the villagers' attempts to resist the long arm of the law. On the edges, there are lengthy tangents that introduces us to the lives of various individuals on both sides, presenting them as whole people and not just players in a high-stakes chess game, and while these are by and large the best and most interesting individual moments, they're also the most obvious distractions from the main throughline of the narrative, which already feels like it's pulling focus from the political argument that Xu consistently walks right up to making, without ever getting around to making it.

Rhetorically, the film is a mess, and that's all there is to it. There is a plus side to this, though, which is that the individual moments are so interesting on a human level that even as the whole package adds up to one big blank spot, there's no point during the watching of it where it feels that way - privately speaking, I'd have liked a bit more time with the wearied villagers of Ma and less with the joking, banally cruel government functionaries, but in all cases, the individual beat-by-beat moments of human life are captivating on the most essential level that we are looking at people with interesting lives behaving in interesting ways. And this, of course, is greatly cinematic, even if it doesn't feel like it quite overlaps with any of the larger currents of the film that Xu overtly claims to make.

There's an unfaked intimacy to these scenes of people going about their business, one that clearly comes from the director's familiarity with this place and the way this community operates, and when Mothers is all about humanity, it is awfully good. There's certainly a way to tie this back together with an activist stance about unyielding, ice cold bureaucracy, and in places, Mothers even reaches that point for a minute or two. But the movie doesn't have a relaxed enough pace for that; it doesn't have time to linger on moments of domestic life and also present the government machine and draw lines between them and conclusions from them. It is a rushed movie, full of beauty and rage, but not focused enough, clean enough, or deliberate enough to allow that beauty and rage to soak in for its best effect.