While men with too much power and not enough empathy try to tell women what to do with their bodies, movies like Bei Bei become essential viewing just for the subject matter alone. While this documentary barely wades into any of the touchy subject matter and morality of abortions themselves, it does paint a very vivid portrait of a legal system that flourishes too much within the gray area. With the titular Bei Bei as its centerpiece, the film retains an emotional core that will hit audiences right out of the gate before it peters out into a fairly rote documentary on the legal system.
The documentary follows the case of Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant living in Indiana who attempted to commit suicide with rat poison. The catch was that she hapopened to also be pregnant at the time. As Indiana has laws against feticide but not suicide, the charge of attempted feticide very quickly becomes the main focal point of the case. Aided by her attorney, Linda Pence, the two launch a public campaign about the case, as its precedence could lead to worse and worse convictions in the future against women who have miscarriages or other procedures during pregnancy.
The opening few minutes of Bei Bei illustrate a woman who is unaware of the crimes she’s being charged for, but completely ruined by her actions. As she apologizes profusely to her family and explains the impact of “losing face” in Chinese culture, there’s a story ready to emerge that’s centered around Bei Bei’s struggle to return to work, get comfortable, and move forward with her life while trying to avoid a charge of attempted feticide and murder. Unfortunately, much of the film revolves around Linda Pence and the legal proceedings that follow. Occasionally, there are some interesting developments in the case, as well as an ultimate curiosity to find out what happens, but the film makes a mistake of being so heavily focused on the actual trial rather than the life of Bei Bei herself.
Bei Bei picks up right after she has been in custody for 435 days in prison, and ends after the trial, but there is almost no background given on why she ingested the rat poison other than the previously mentioned “losing face” concept. It’s a movie so enamored with the case itself that it loses a lot of the human element in the process. Instead, beats that should be emotional tend to have more questions circling them because there isn’t quite enough context given to truly understand or care.
The most interesting elements of Bei Bei happen when it starts working within the gray areas of the law. When it really pries into why the feticide charge is questionable, that’s when it feels like a movie with something to say. But this 76-minute documentary spends a lot of time squandering potentially interesting points for things that are expected from a case like this — namely, corruption of the legal system. That, combined with fairly cheap production values, leaves Bei Bei feeling like coverage of a news story spread out over a feature-length film, which only disappoints when all of the potential is there for a far more captivating story.