all movies
Zhang Wei 张唯

Set in the southern city of Shenzhen, Zhang Wei’s docudrama Destiny (2016) focuses on a mother’s struggle to keep her autistic child, Xi He, in a ‘normal’ primary school in the face of strong opposition from the parents of the other children in the school and a lack of strong paternal support.


Based on a true story, Zhang Wei’s docudrama Destiny represents the trials of educating an autistic child in China from two perspectives. The first is a portrayal of the individual needs of an autistic child, which the mother assumes primary responsibility for. The second is a critique of the standards and requirements of the mainstream or “normal” education system and how this competitive environment does not take into account the needs of disadvantaged students.

In Destiny, education is presented as the only path to an independent life. Whereas American films such as Rain Man (directed by Barry Levinson, 1988) or more recently, Adam (directed by Max Mayer, 2009) seek to represent an individual’s experience of autism, Chinese films such as Breaking the Silence (漂亮妈妈) (directed by Sun Zhou, 2000), and now Destiny make use of developmental disorders as a starting-point for a broader sociopolitical critique. The protagonist, Tian Lin, represents an idealised image of motherhood as she tirelessly struggles for her child’s equal right to an education. In contrast, Xi He’s blue-collar father, Zhao Ju, is a passive figure who is content with the status quo, and urges his wife to give up her struggle to have their son accepted into mainstream society.

Director Zhang Wei states that he sought to “express the motherhood topic through the life experience of an autistic child … as well as reflect the relationship between man and society from a humanistic care perspective.” The dialogue is direct and emotive, and in preparing the script director Zhang Wei pieced together parts of the dialogue from the real-life accounts of an autistic student’s mother, other students’ parents, a school principal, and school teachers in order to present an “authentic and reasonable story”. As Zhang Wei states, “I use 98 minutes to foretell the whole life of a 9-year-old autistic child. I am exploring a destiny inherited from genes. I am also trying hard to show the life struggles of a mother facing a desperate situation.”

Dr. Daniel VUILLERMIN (Institute of Medical Humanities, Peking University)


Tian Lin, Xi He’s mother, takes every opportunity she can to educate her son so that he can understand the world around him better and eventually live independently. However, Zhao Ju, Xi He's father, is content for his son to attend a ‘special’ school and encourages Tian Lin to have a second child so that in the future Xi He will be cared for. After a series of incidents at the school a group of parents organise to have Xi He expelled. Tian Lin attempts to apologise and persuade other parents to sign a petition, but while some show sympathy most of the parents dismiss her pleas.

Although a consultation with a doctor reveals that Xi He shows signs of intellectual improvement and is capable of learning, the school struggles to have him reinstated. Finally Xi He and Tian Lin are forcefully ejected by a group of aggrieved parents. The film then shifts to a remote and impoverished village where the family visits Tian Lin’s mother. There it is revealed that Tian Lin has an autistic elder brother, Tian Gui, who has escaped from his shackles. That evening the villagers round up Tian Gui and threaten to lock him permanently in a steel cage. Tian Lin’s elderly mother struggles to care her son yet does not trust others to take responsibility for him.

Faced with the task of caring for two autistic family members, Tian Lin divulges that she was “born a slave” to attend to her brother following their parents' death. The elderly mother states that it is her “fate”, or destiny as the title of the film suggests, to care for her family.

Tian Lin leaves behind her mother and brother and returns to Shenzhen where she takes on the role of teacher to Xi He, not at a school, but on a subway platform. The mother and son attract the attention of the public and their story goes viral on social media, television, and newspapers prompting the local government to respond to Xi He’s situation.

A televised meeting between Tian Lin, the school headmaster, and government officials proceeds as each interested party debates the policies of integrated education and the challenges of balancing the rights of majority and minority groups. Tian Lin makes a plea for the public to understand, accept, and integrate people with autism into ‘normal’ society. However, Xi He is not readmitted into the school.

Finally, Tian Lin quits her job at a bank and assumes full responsibility for home educating Xi He.

Dr. Daniel VUILLERMIN (Institute for Medical Humanities, Peking University)


Like many so-called ‘sixth generation’ social realist art films which focus on contemporary marginal figures in a naturalistic documentary style, a strain of didacticism runs through Destiny. In the film, disability is treated not just as a serious subject in its own right, but as a kind of catalyst or focal point around which a broader range of contemporary social and moral issues are brought into focus and pose an implicit challenge to the societal and institutional consensus.

Dr. Daniel VUILLERMIN (Institute of Medical Humanities, Peking University) and Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)