Written and directed by Chinese filmmaker Weijia Ma, Step In The River focuses on Lu and Wei, two young girls living in a village nestled on the banks of a river in China. As the country’s one-child policy has led some families to drown baby girls, they both have a special relationship with this river – unaware of its tragic significance in their lives.
Set in a rural village, both girls are casualties of China’s controversial one-child policy and implied social disdain for girls, who are expected to work and help with household chores rather than play with boys. But the protagonists have more to contend with besides the instilled gender bias, as they are further outcast due to being ‘different’: young orphan Lu is ostracised for her birthmarks while Wei lives with her grandmother after being abandoned by her parents. Needless to say, they are seeking an escape, which comes in the form of a nearby river.
But the film slowly introduces a deeper meaning when Wei starts being haunted by a baby spirit, as its presence brings to light the real depth of China’s population planning initiative that drove some families to extreme and tragic outcomes. With so much to convey in a short timeframe, Ma combines sparse dialogue and simple, hand-drawn animation, which creates a wistful direction that guides the audience through the sombre narrative. However, the intensity of the one-child policy driving the story leads to a lack of character development, leaving Wei and Lu with stunted backgrounds and supporting yet stereotypical characters (for instance, the inattentive father and the local bully). As a result, the result is an overly simplistic approach that gives audiences a brief glimpse into China’s history of female infanticide, rather than the bigger picture.
Although this glimpse is brief, Step Into The River subtly highlights the emotional ramifications of China’s gender bias. Through the girls’ innocent eyes, the audience sees the lack of equality that surrounds them and their inability to find a relatable solace, forming a touching friendship between Lu and Wei. Their need for acceptance drives them to an impossible destination, creating a subtle sense of hope, only for the story to deliver a hefty emotional punch that shows that girls have not been the only ones affected by the country’s one-child policy.
Overall, Weijia Ma’s Step Into The River offers a fleeting look into China’s one-child policy. Sweet and touching in its delivery, its overly simplistic approach causes its message to lose its edge.
Director: Weijia Ma
Runtime: 15 minutes