Review

'One Child' examines injustice at expense of personal pain

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
'One Child' on Sundance explores the Chinese policy's injustice, but the drama needs more focus on its effects

Like most things on the Sundance TV, Guy Hibbert's two-part miniseries "One Child" is artisanal television.

Well acted, concisely written, expertly steeped in mood and message, the program, which premieres Friday, is lush and slow and passionately ambitious. As with this year's "The Honorable Woman," it's also internationally political in a way that often divides the narrative from its main character.

In China, a wealthy young Chinese man murders a Nigerian club employee, and a student who witnessed the crime is arrested. Soon after, a Chinese reporter contacts Mei Ashley ("Harry Potter's" Katie Leung), a British college student, with the first news she has ever received of her biological family: Her brother has been convicted of a murder he did not commit and now faces death; her birth mother, Li (Mardy Ma), is hoping Mei will come to her home in China and help win his freedom.

Spurred more by the first part of the request than the second, Mei agrees. Her parents — an American (Elizabeth Perkins) and a Brit (Donald Sumpter) — greet her decision with a heart-breaking combination of overt support and secret trepidation. That grows into fear as Mei becomes embroiled in her brother's case.

Mei too is taken aback by the nature of her reunion. Li, who speaks no English, seems to have little interest in the daughter she gave up as an infant aside from a means to free her son; she will not even look at the girl she left at an orphanage all those years ago. Explaining that Li is ashamed, the reporter takes Mei to see her brother, Ajun (Sebastian So). A charming young man who longs to be a DJ, he is thrilled to meet his sister and immediately begins making plans to live with her in London.

Dazzled by her new brother and his confidence in her, Mei agrees to do everything she can to free him, though, strangely, none of this action involves contacting the British media or working the Internet. Instead, she takes things into her own hands, which leads to some contrivances.

Mei is, after all, British, with only the vaguest understanding of Chinese culture, language or politics. Putting herself in situations that would give "Homeland's" Carrie Mathison pause, Mei seems to be operating less under the lingering myth of Western invincibility and more beneath a jet-lagged cloud of absurdity.

As the plot twists into criminal investigation, Mei grows closer to Li, but her personal journey — as a child returning to the country and mother that rejected her in favor of a possible boy child — is largely buried by Hibbert's main concern: exposing China's corrupt legal system. As with Mei's initial meeting with Li, the complexities of adoption and the deeply personal impact of the one-child policy plays second fiddle to a more familiar tale of manipulated "justice."

This is a deeply disturbing and important tale, one hastens to add. Still, it's difficult not to wish that "One Child," directed by John Alexander and produced in conjunction with the BBC, paid more attention to its title character.

Leung's Mei is strong, resolute and brave if more than a little rash, but her feelings toward her situation, either immediate or long-term, are given short shrift as are those of her parents, both biological and adoptive — which is too bad.

More than 70,000 Chinese children, most of them girls, have been adopted out of China since 1979. At least 70% are now Americans, which continues to be underrepresented on television, where these girls and their unique position in history are much more likely to be found in a documentary than a drama.

"One Child" takes welcome steps to rectify that. But for all its beauty and power, it too seems more interested in the byzantine politics than the women and girls so deeply and irrevocably affected by them.

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'One Child'

Where: Sundance

When: 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Rating: TV-PG-SV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for sex and violence)

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