The opening moments of Jessica Yu’s Misconception appear to be business as usual on the stylistic front for the documentarian: a barrage of talking heads spouting off facts about the world’s overpopulation, with some of that information buttressed by slick computer-animated graphics, and all of it wrapped in a cutesy music score (courtesy of Nick Urata) to make these grave issues go down easy. But, then, we’re whisked away to Beijing for a roughly half-hour look into the life of a single man weeks away from turning 30 and feeling pressure from relatives to get married, and Yu reveals greater narrative ambitions. For once, the sprawling nature of the filmmaker’s subject has inspired her to adopt a messier exploratory approach. In deciding to focus more on personal responses to the question of how to control population growth, Yu breaks her film into three chapters, each focused on a specific individual in different environments. As a result, Misconception feels like three mini movies in one, the short character studies glued together by the larger idea of challenging long-held beliefs about this still-relevant issue.
The aforementioned Beijing-set chapter is the most involving of the three. It’s worth noting that one of the cinematographers who worked on this section is Lixin Fan, whose 2009 documentary Last Train Home explored similar thematic territory to this portion of Yu’s film: generational clashes, traditional versus progressive ways of thinking about love and family, and the like. Though the on-screen titles, jump-cut editing, and whimsical music cues are a far cry from Fan’s austere detachment, there are moments of keen behavioral observation in this first third that fleetingly suggest something like a Wang Bing epic compressed into 30 minutes. The broader implications, though, are specific to Misconception: As a result of the Chinese government’s one-child policy and favoritism of boys to girls having led to 30 million fewer women than men, millennials such as Bao are now forced into a dilemma of how much they should focus on their own lives and careers, and how much they should buckle under pressure to think about their parents’ needs and those of Chinese society at large.
The even-handedness of Yu’s gaze throughout the first part of the film, alas, isn’t sustained in the second and third chapters. A Canadian pro-life activist named Denise is the focus of the second section, and it doesn’t take long for Yu’s scorn for this figure to become apparent. Despite a brief and seemingly sincere acknowledgment of the born-again religious convictions underpinning Denise’s anti-birth control stance, much of this section follows her and a couple of friends going all the way to the United Nations to preach their gospel, sucking up to delegates of certain countries in order to try to gain their support. If one scene in which a Ghanaian cab driver blatantly contradicts her mistaken belief that the country outlaws abortions isn’t enough of a tip-off as to what Yu really thinks of this paragon of staunch conservatism, then Urata’s mockingly jaunty score should do the trick.
“If poverty is the problem, let’s fix that,” Denise says to the UN delegation at one point. As if to conclusively prove the naïveté of her statement, Yu takes us next to Kampala, Uganda, where poverty is rampant and overpopulation is definitely a concern. Specifically, she trains her focus on journalist Gladys Kalibbala, whose admirable efforts to help abandoned children relocate their parents through a weekly newspaper column are elevated, in insistently labored fashion, to the realm of sainthood. Finally, in the film’s epilogue, Prof. Hans Rosling, the film’s spiritual guru, and a star statistician who, like Yu, loves to jazz up data into flashy graphics in desperate attempts to make them spuriously entertaining to laypeople, pins much of the blame for overpopulation on class differences. Thus completes Misconception’s downward spiral from bracingly recognizing the muddled complexity of the population-growth problem to reassuring viewers, however cautiously, with overly pat conclusions.