When Li Jun (Sebastian So) is visited by his sister, Mei Ashley (Katie Leung), in John Alexander’s One Child, he’s behind bars, framed for the murder of a nightclub patron, a crime he witnessed with many others. So, it’s understandable that when he talks about the stars in the sky, he first ponders the inevitability of a comet obliterating the planet, whereas Mei, a budding astrophysicist, insists that one must only see hope in the stars. And though Mei is inarguably One Child’s main character, the miniseries is more aligned with Li Jun’s pessimism in its view of China’s transition toward a more capitalistic society; as it turns out, Jun is the patsy for the son of a wealthy Chinese official, who bribed witnesses and colleagues to get his chief scion out of a lethal injection.
There’s a potent anger seething beneath this legal drama that’s consistently felt as the hours until Li Jun’s execution tick down, one that both powers this procedural and seems out of sync with the overall lack of nuance and invention in Guy Hibbert’s glib script. One Child opens with the murder that Li Jun is accused of, and there’s a sense of eerie menace to the way he and his friend hardly seem bothered by the incident; to be fair, at least Li Jun feels guilty about not sticking around. What follows could be seen as a sort of moral punishment for Li Jun, a cautionary tale about being flippant toward crime and societal decay, but his arc ultimately only serves to give the narrative a kick of urgency. As a character, he remains largely unseen after the opening sequence, as the narrative shifts its focus to Mei’s relationship with Li Young (Mardy Ma), her birth mother who gave her up for adoption, and who begs her to return to her birthplace of Guangzhao in South China to help her newfound sibling.
Mei is an audience proxy of sorts, learning all the seedy details about the rampant human-rights violations that are barely kept quiet in modern China, including the “petition” system, widespread censorship, and near-barbaric drug laws. There’s an obvious didacticism to all of this that drains One Child of any serious dramatic punch, as it’s clear that its intentions are to solely reiterate how corrupt China is. Even when Mei goes undercover as a “hostess” at a brothel to get footage to use for blackmail, which ends with her sleeping with a john and snorting coke, the entire sequence scans less as a dire personal decision and more as an underlining of the common crookedness that fuels many corners of Chinese society. As characters, her adoptive parents, played by Donald Sumpter and Elizabeth Perkins, come to only allow for certain easy outs in the narrative, such as when Mei needs a large sum of money to secure the help of Mr. Lin (Junix Inocian), a professional extortionist and blackmailer.
Mr. Lin’s hiring and Mei’s trust of a radical reformist group led by lawyers and journalists partially lead to the wrenching climax, cosmic retribution for indulging an immoral criminal like Lin to correct the crimes hung around Li Jun’s neck. For all its clear outrage, One Child presents absolutely zero challenging ideas of what to do in reaction to these sort of crimes against humanity, other than to ostensibly deal with it. If there are flickers of fascinating detail in the sequences involving China’s African population and their desperate reliance on illegal means of employment, they’re only fleeting, as the dialogue constantly circles around to the familiar machinations of the plot.
The grim politics that underlie Alexander’s miniseries were far more convincing when Wang Bing and Jia Zhang-ke were addressing them, as the complexities of the narratives they chose, and their audacious visual rhythms, matched the tumultuous history and modern-day intricacies of China’s socioeconomic transformation. The cynicism that denotes One Child is repugnant in that its ultimate goal isn’t even really to address these hugely relevant issues, but rather to use them to cleverly veil a story that’s a dozen white actors and a Lifehouse song away from being a Lifetime movie of the week.