‘Misconception’ Review: Overpopulation Doc Misses the Target

What promises to be a breezy look at population control around the world descends into easy mockery and obvious statements

Last Updated: June 24, 2016 @ 11:41 AM

The independent son returns home as his well-to-do family sits patiently at the dinner table. After a few minutes of casual conversation, parents invariably ask the child, now an adult, “So, are you seeing anyone? When are you getting married?” It’s an excruciating exchange of dialogue, stumbling around for an answer that may appease their archaic notions of modern romance. (“Uh, yeah, I’m seeing someone, but it’s not too serious. Anyway, can you pass the corn?”)

Imagine that two-minute bit of awkwardness elongated into 90 minutes. If that task is surmountable, then what you’ll find is a movie called “Misconception,” a stultifying and drab documentary about relationships and reproduction in the age of overpopulation.

Directed by Jessica Yu (“American Dreams,” “Ping Pong Playa”) and narrated by Kyra Sedgwick, the film opens ambitiously: Statistics guru Hans Rosling tells us that “80 percent of the world has two-child families,” which averages out to “2.5 children per woman.” Rosling firmly believes most conversations about the salience of overpopulation are erroneous.

To gain a better understanding of how other countries are dealing with reproduction, Yu embarks on a quick expedition. In Russia, their motto is “skip work, have sex,” because Vladimir Putin believes “either we will be many, or we won’t be any.”

MISCONCEPTION_featThen there’s India, where businessmen are offering what they believe to be advantageous deals to young women. Deals like, “Get sterilized, win this car.” Yes, this is a very real and horrifying proposition. And for a moment “Misconception” seems like it may be a light but engaging travelogue that sheds light on life away from America. (See: Michael Moore‘s breezy last film, “Where to Invade Next.”)

However, Yu decides to make a serious pivot in the direction of Beijing, where a millennial named Bao (nearing 30) is looking for love. Bao is ostensibly educated, certainly employed, and moderately handsome. He’s also paralyzingly single. The title on this chapter of Yu’s story is “Lonely Emperor Seeks Wife.” But Bao is one of many lonely emperors since China enforced the one-child per family policy, which resulted in a deficit of 30 million girls. Paucity of woman, deluge of men.

While his parents harangue Bao for not getting married, we begin to understand why he may still be without a partner. The woman of his dreams must be taller than 5 foot 4, but shorter than 5 foot 7, and, most importantly, “very thin.” “Girls are very materialistic now,” he says without one iota of irony.

Soon, we’re treated to possibly the most noxious sequence of 2016. Bao and his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Wang Wei, are at a table, eating. Bao’s parents are once again yelling at him for not putting a ring on it. The shot starts with him wiping the tears off his face. He’s clearly flustered, tired of having the same discussion over and over again. His father sees the sadness, and changes his tune. “We hope you fly high in the sky! Fly high!” he tells Bao and Wang Wei. They’re only so hard on him because they just want him to be happy. To further prove his support he gestures to Wang Wei to say, “After you get married, you don’t need to work. He’ll take care of you.”

And just when you’d hope Bao may chime in to say,”Well, yes, maybe she doesn’t have to work, but she’d like to have some autonomy,” he goes in an entirely different direction, responding, “She should work on losing some weight.”

And she laughs! Wang Wei produces the most disheartening giggle I’ve ever witnessed.

Then, for the grand finale? A title card that reads, “A few weeks later, Wang Wei breaks off the engagement.”

This sort of unscripted tragicomedy is so brilliant and baffling that I want to believe someone working on “Misconception” understood what was happening here. But, right after that scene, just when you think the movie may have a bit of self-awareness, it cuts to James Brown‘s “This Is a Man’s World.”

Subtlety is not Jessica Yu’s strong suit.

This is evident in the other avenues the movie explores, including a Canadian pro-life activist who Yu condescendingly mocks, and a visit to Uganda, where lives have been ravished by poverty. Under the banner of Participant Media, “Misconception” proceeds to bang the viewer over the head with oversimplified explanations for class inequality and overpopulation. This tendency to instruct rather than illuminate appears in many of Participant’s films, which have a clear streak of activism to them.

Subsequently, in case you wanted more information about “Misconception” and its various causes, you can visit the film’s website. Or, perhaps, don’t.