Arts Reviews

TV Review: On Children: A System that Fails Mothers and Children

Sharon Hsieh

This 2018 Taiwanese anthology is produced by Public Television Service (PTS) Taiwan and available on Netflix UK and North Ireland now. Adapted from the first-hand observation of Taiwanese educational system by Shao-Le Wu, a former tutor, the series name is inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s same-name poem.

The series extracts the poem’s message that ‘your children are not your children’ (also the original Chinese title for the series), and points its shrilling questioning to the controlling Taiwanese parenting style through surrealistic fictional worlds.

The sci-fi anthology made tremendous effort to confront the deep-rooted obsession to pursue high academic performance and toxic familial culture

The sci-fi and horror drama is comprised of five independent stories: Mother’s Remote, Cat’s Child, The Last Day of Molly, Peacock, and ADHD is Necessary. Often compared with Black Mirror, the sci-fi anthology made tremendous effort to confront the deep-rooted obsession to pursue high academic performance and toxic familial culture.  

It is also noteworthy that the director Hui-Ling Chen made a bold decision to deviate from the popular rom-com form that has wider audience possibility and is dominant in Taiwanese television. Instead, she adopted this rare seen sci-fi form to satirise the obsession with good academic performance in Taiwanese society, and also challenge the audience’s durability of being presented with the distorted filial duty which forbids any disobedience from the children.

At the first glimpse, On Children seems like yet another drama about dysfunctional families, and about the exceptions that are not relevant to the majority. Its dark, dystopian undertone also draws you away from your daily reality. Yet underneath the surface of scientific fiction, the common theme of On Children reveals the universal issue of absent fathers and mothers who are overwhelmed by societal expectations to educate their children to compete for better academic performance. The mothers in the series are either in struggling or resenting single-motherhood (Mother’s Remote), near single-motherhood situation in which their husbands and in-laws shovels the burden of caretaking to them (Cat’s Child and The Last Day of Molly), or single-motherhood generated by dystopian social structure (ADHD is Necessary).

These mothers usually transmit their resentment and stress to their overbearing and unrealistic expectation to their children’s academic performance

Even in the episode where both parents are present in the children’s life and education, the mother is still disproportionately burdened with and anxious about caretaking and suffers the consequence of greed for the family (Peacock). These mothers usually transmit their resentment and stress to their overbearing and unrealistic expectation to their children’s academic performance and kill off the children’s creative possibilities and even healthy social activities. The emotional black-mailings: ‘It’s all for your own good’, ‘After I sacrifice so much for you…’, and ‘You’ll thank me later’ are only too familiar to Taiwanese family, and are also heartbreakingly recurring features in the series that sting the audience’s deep-buried traumas.

The catharsis it brings is very rewarding, but it requires your engagement as audience to relive the memory in competitive study environment

As a sci-fi anthology, it may not have the wild and sharp imagination and futuristic vision like Black Mirror. It does not give the visual satisfaction of fantastical special effects. What it can offer, is an opportunity to see our youthful confusions, the emotionally kidnapped heartache and the slight twitches on your face in confrontations with family members that no one seemed to care or notice, all well represented on screen. It offers you a chance to reconcile with the overworking younger version self who would do everything to please the parents. The catharsis it brings is very rewarding, but it requires your engagement as audience to relive the memory in competitive study environment and familial conflicts or compromises.

However subtle and well-concealed, those damages feed into the vicious circles in the Taiwanese educational system

On Children states very clear that the primary victims of psychological and physical violence in familial structures are often children and mothers. However subtle and well-concealed, those damages feed into the vicious circles in the Taiwanese educational system and familial structure. Fortunately, our unspoken pains and cuts are well represented in this series and has a good chance to transcend to complement the poetical lyrics of Gibran with the audience’s engagement in these heart-wrecking stories.

Although mainly focusing on criticizing the social and structural issues of Taiwan, On Children also offers to console those who have ever been wrongly measured by standards that cannot represent their individuality, and to reconciliate with the damaged version of themselves who have never received a well-deserved apology from the parents. It is an accusation against the tyranny of parenthood, filial duty, and educational system, and it is also an open invitation to reshape the society as a whole.

Sharon Hsieh

Featured image courtesy of Stock Catalog via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license can be found here.

In article Tweets courtesy of  @hansimin2 via Twitter. No changes were made to these Tweets.

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