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SundanceTV’s new two-part miniseries One Child positions its protagonist Mei (Katie Leung), a young woman born in China but raised by adoptive parents in London, as a tragic hero. When a journalist contacts her on the behalf of her birth mother with news that the biological brother (Sebastian So) who she has never met has been wrongfully accused of murder, she finds herself sucked up into a mess that threatens to swallow her whole.

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There’s a considerable amount of restraint in the story’s telling. Three weeks are on the clock, but the miniseries doesn’t follow the pacing of a standard race-against-the-clock thriller. It takes its time with the material, doesn’t romanticize the conflict for the sake of excitement. And it’s that lack of a Hollywood filter that allows One Child to subvert expectations. We’re just as surprised as Mei when her reunion with her birth mother isn’t a warm welcome but an impersonal, tense meeting. “She’s not my mother,” Mei tells the Chinese journalist who has brought her to Guangzhou. “I didn’t feel it.” Mei has built up this reunion with fantasy, with the kind of instant mother-daughter connection of fairytales. But One Child wastes no time with sentimental pretension.

Mei gives everything—her body, her parents’ life savings, every ounce of her energy—to trying to save her brother. At times, her choices are frustrating, to both her adoptive parents and viewers, but they’re believable, the choices of someone who feels she doesn’t have any other options. Potential solutions—recanting witnesses, a team of dissident lawyers, a powerful private investigator—dangle in front of her, only to be snatched away. And every time Mei got hopeful about a new lead, I did, too. Because so many movies and television have trained me to believe, no matter the odds, the hero will succeed. How many times have we seen the tale of one individual rising up against corruption and winning?

Precisely because of its unflinching grimness, One Child is one of the most successful critiques of a broken system I’ve seen in a while. It’s a critique of an entire justice system told intimately through the eyes of one family, giving real bodies and feelings to the problems it probes. And while the series specifically scrutinizes the Chinese judicial and criminal justice systems, it’s also a takedown of the complications of globalization and the limits of diplomacy. And its commentary on the death penalty should resonate with SundanceTV’s American audience on a personal level, for it would be a naive error to think none of this critique applies to the United States, where conservative estimates indicate 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent.

The most surprising show of restraint comes when Mei is presented with the most promising get-out-of-jail-free card: The father of the real killer tells her he will make a call to the police to report that there’s a possibility the witnesses misidentified her brother at the scene of the crime. Only, it’s not a card completely free of strings. He isn’t, of course, offering to turn in his own son. He instead offers to throw another innocent man under the bus, a friend of Mei’s brother who also was at the club that night. If One Child were trying to be a crime thriller, here’s where the story’s climax would be. The script would spend time with Mei as she contemplates her decision: Is saving her brother worth sacrificing another innocent? That would become the series’ central question, hammered over and over again. But instead, in One Child, Mei makes her decision pretty quickly and without any grandiose gestures of weighing her options. Over the course of the series, the various characters have asked her to do and be many things, but here is where she exerts her agency to draw her line. She can’t be responsible for the death of another man.

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“We had too much hope,” the journalist, recently freed from prison, tells Mei when the series reaches its conclusion. Even with its somewhat light final minute, One Child is a story with very little hope. But why pretend injustice is an easily defeatable foe?

Stray observations:

  • Leung truly dazzles as Mei, and the miniseries would not work if not for her conviction.
  • Elizabeth Perkins is wonderful as Mei’s adoptive mother. At one point, she just breaks down while Skyping with Mei because she can’t even fully articulate what she’s going through as a mother, and it’s heartbreaking.
  • I also love how both of Mei’s adoptive parents have jobs that make them sound like characters in Nora Ephron movies: The father writes books about Greek history, and the mother translates Russian novels.
  • All the scenes between Mei and her birth mother are some of the best moments in the miniseries. The language barrier makes these scenes light on dialogue, but that tense silence is very effective.
  • The camerawork is very strong throughout. Lightweight cameras give a floating, very natural feel to the scenes. And stifling closeups evoke a suffocating feeling that parallels how Mei feels for most of the series.
  • Not all of the pacing choices work. The series spends a little too much time with Mei at the real killer’s home. Swimming shots are pretty, but it all felt out of place.
  • Racial and class tensions are themes throughout the narrative. When Mei asks the real killer how he has an older sister considering the one child policy, he replies, tellingly, “I don’t know. Who cares?”

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