A young woman travels to China to meet her mother’s family after a 50-year separation. She discovers that her intellectual relatives have faced persecution, imprisonment, and even murder during China’s convulsive political movements.
ONCE REMOVED, a one-hour documentary, focuses on three of filmmaker Julie Mallozzi’s relatives: a scientist whose life was disrupted by politics, a professor whose life was ended by politics, and a government official who works her life around politics. Weaving together dreams, historical footage, and scenes from her relatives’ lives, the filmmaker meditates on the complications of remembering and forgetting the past.
Mallozzi first visits her great-uncle Wang Shou-Jue, a scientist who pioneered the development of computer chips in China. He shows her his research, and talks about the Cultural Revolution, when he swept floors and fed furnaces: “physical hard work that didn’t use the brain.” The filmmaker makes realizes, “I studied the Cultural Revolution in college, but somehow it never occurred to me to think about my family living through these events.”
She then investigates the 1940s murder of her grandmother’s favorite brother, Fei Gong. A political science professor who promoted democracy in China, Fei Gong was kidnapped and murdered by the Nationalists, and later declared a revolutionary martyr by the Communists. Mallozzi retraces Fei Gong’s last steps to a foggy dock in Chongqing and the site of the chemical pool where his corpse supposedly was dissolved. “Do you think there is no chemical pool?” she asks her doubtful cousin Mimi as they walk through the desolate site. “I’m beginning to think this history isn’t true.” The filmmaker’s nightmares intensify as she gets caught in a tangled web of propaganda, family, and memory.
The film ends with a visit to Aunt Fei Shi-Cheng, the first cousin of Mallozzi’s mother and an energetic government official in the family’s hometown of Suzhou. She proudly shows Suzhou’s new development, but also cries about her father’s persecution and his parting words: “In loving my country I was not mistaken. I have not done my country wrong, or the Communist party wrong. Someday my name will be cleared.” The filmmaker prepares to leave China, realizing that, “For my relatives, the cost of remembering the past is high. For me, it’s a kind of luxury. But I need to recover my family’s past because I’m afraid of living without memories.”