In SundanceTV’s new miniseries, “One Child,” keepsakes abound. Adoption files in a British country home; a photograph in a Guangzhou hotel room; a certificate of achievement from a Chinese school: from these mementos screenwriter Guy Hibbert and director John Alexander construct a complex family portrait in the vernacular of an international thriller, adding another notch to the network’s impressive belt (“Rectify,” “Top of the Lake,” “The Honorable Woman”). Indeed, it’s this attention to globalization’s human dimension that marks the miniseries as such powerful viewing. “One Child” asks, finally, how our understanding of the wider world changes when we’re forced to confront it face to face.
In this sense, the miniseries’ excitements, though abundant, occur on intimate terrain. With the exception of the crime that sets the narrative in motion, the tension derives not from adventurous set pieces but from quotidian suspense — dissident meetings in the park, the interminable wait for a visa, even drinks at a Guangzhou teahouse provoke a certain dread, as if the machinery of a corrupt regime might whir into action at any moment. As Mei (Katie Leung), a Chinese-born woman adopted at birth by a pair of Western intellectuals (Elizabeth Perkins and Donald Sumpter), travels to China to investigate her biological brother’s wrongful conviction, “One Child” conjures the fear of a system that follows but one logic: power.
Aided by a Chinese journalist (Lihn-Dan Pham) and urged on by her birth mother (the tremendously moving Mardy Ma), Mei soon discovers that securing her brother’s freedom — he’s slated to be executed in three weeks — will require her to jettison the privileges of her previously unexamined life. Leung’s performance is not unimpeachable, sometimes straining for a ferocity that’s beyond her command, but the resolve she musters as she enters Guangzhou’s underworld is convincing. Woven into the tense, dangerous work of turning the state’s witnesses, who’ve been influenced by the real perpetrator’s wealthy, politically connected father, is the halting process by which she comes to embrace her Chinese family. As Mei begins to realize who she is, we begin to realize how far she’ll go to sustain the connection.
As a consequence, “One Child” thrusts Mei into situations that seem at once unsettlingly foreign and eerily familiar. Greed, corruption, and injustice know no borders, and yet the particulars of life in urban China, rarely addressed on Anglophone television, leave the viewer as unmoored as Mei herself. Whether bribing a prison guard or consulting with a private investigator, Mei learns the rules of the game as she goes along, and much of the miniseries’ anxious atmosphere derives from the fact that everything in Guangzhou is an unknown quantity. It’s never clear what price Mei stands to pay for interfering in Guangzhou’s internal affairs.
In placing its tale of a ruthless bureaucracy within an international framework, however, “One Child” resists the temptation to exoticize China in favor of seeing the drama as a microcosm of a much larger story. The Nigerian merchants, Chinese workers, and British diplomats that populate the miniseries suggest a jostle of impossible choices. Even the characters’ most questionable actions, such as providing false testimony, stem from a desire to protect kith and kin, and the beneficiaries of power remain largely off-screen, invisible forces hemming in the powerless. “My mum and dad brought me here when I was 10, but I don’t remember much,” Mei says, opening the door to one of the miniseries’ few explicit references to China’s rapid change. “Ah,” the journalist replies. “So the city was not built then.”
As it happens, the economic and technological transformations by which we’ve forged ties to far-flung locales also make us responsible for the nefarious consequences that follow. Mei is the heroine of “One Child,” ultimately, because she seeks the righteous path, while her adoptive parents and the British consulate assuage themselves with the notion that there’s nothing to be done. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice,” as Desmond Tutu asserted, “you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In “One Child,” the heirlooms and personal histories that link Mei’s global family together render neutrality a compromised position. It’s a small world, after all.
“One Child” airs Friday, December 5 and Saturday, December 6 at 9pm on SundanceTV.