Why “Living With Dead Hearts” Is A Must-See China Documentary

Simply put, you should watch Living with Dead Hearts, a documentary made by the husband-wife team of Charlie Custer and Leia Li. The film follows four families who have been touched by child trafficking, and through their stories, we gain an understanding of an under-publicized issue that affects untold thousands in China every year.

(Disclosure: I helped subtitle some of the film more than a year ago.)

Here are three reasons you should watch:

1. The subjects

The movie is light on narration and heavy on interviews. The interviewers — presumably Charlie (founder of China Geeks, currently a writer for Tech in Asia) and Leia — allow the families to tell as much of their stories as they are willing or able to share. And share they do, even through sobs.

“We don’t eat. We don’t drink tea. Every day we dream of bringing our grandson home,” says one.

“Here is what I want to say to my son,” says another. “Your dad and mom were not good, we didn’t watch you close enough, that’s why you were kidnapped. Son, daddy and mommy are sorry. No matter where you go, as long as we’re alive, your mom and dad, as long as we have breath, we’ll be trying to bring you home.”

“For a month after we lost him, she and I couldn’t even tell day from night,” says Liu Jingjun, father. “We really couldn’t tell the difference.”

You won’t leave feeling warm and fuzzy — this isn’t that type of film — but hopefully you’ll be motivated to learn more.

2. The scope

The interviewees include: the family of an infant boy, the family of a pre-teen girl, the family of a teenage boy, and an abductee recalling his story as an adult. It’s clear why these were chosen: to highlight the complexity of child trafficking, and the number of lives it touches.

Trafficking is partially spurred by the one-child policy, which puts a premium on children, who are “precious for their scarcity.” Girls are targeted for forced prostitution and marriage, and young men are in danger of slave labor. Any of them can be sold to adoption agencies, or find themselves begging on the street.

But at the heart of it, trafficking starts with one person stealing another, and it’s the devastation of this act — the pain of that bereavement, the uncertainty the abductee’s family will likely live with forever — that this film poignantly captures.

3. The issue

China estimates 10,000 children are kidnapped each year, while the US state department says it may be double that number. There is an incredible urgency for something to be done, but try as lawmakers have — namely with capital punishment for convicted traffickers — abductions persist.

The documentary isn’t perfect, but what is there is undeniably powerful and moving. “He just disappeared… there are no leads… she vanished in an instant.” These are some of the voices that appear at the start of the film, as parents and grandparents gather around a wall of missing children posters, some that go into minute detail of what the kids were wearing on the day of their disappearance.

It’s unlikely the adults here will ever see their child again, but we can hope — as they hope, every minute of every day.

Anthony Tao contributed to this post. Follow Hannah @HannahLincoln1.

You can help the filmmakers by purchasing Living with Dead Hearts from their website.

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