The Chinese Communist Party has no shortage of criminal laws, but you wouldn’t call it a justice system. The guilty can freely buy their way out of prosecution and the wronged often spend decades fruitlessly petitioning the government for redress. Overturning an unjust capital conviction is not merely difficult, it is downright Kafkaesque. Nonetheless, that is the position a British adoptee finds herself in when she agrees to help her birthmother try to save the brother she never knew in the two-night mini-series One Child (promo here), which premieres on SundanceTV this Friday and Saturday.
Mei Ashley was put up for adoption as an infant, because she was a girl. Happily raised by her provincial middle class parents, Jim and Katherine Ashley, she is a rather well-adjusted, thoroughly English astrophysics student, until she gets a call out of the blue from China. Having traced her from the orphanage, journalist Qianyi implores her to come to China to help save her brother Li Jun. He happened to be at the wrong club on the wrong night, when the entitled son of a Guangzhou oligarch killed a Nigerian trader while on a drug-fueled rage. Ordinarily, his father would simply pay off the victim’s family, but since the Nigerian government demanded a prosecution, Li Jun was framed in his place.
Inconveniently, Ashleylacks the connections Qiangyi hoped for, but she comes to Guangzhou anyway, neglecting to explain the full circumstances of the trip to her protective parents. The first meeting with her birthmother is highly awkward, but when she visits her brother in prison, they share an instant connection. Much to the abject horror of the local British consular officer, Ashley gets involved with a group of dissident attorneys, hoping they can overturn Li Jun’s death sentence. To do so, they will have to convince eleven Chinese witnesses and four Nigerians to recant their testimony.
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert shows a keen understanding of the ruthlessness and arbitrary application of principle in the Party’s courts. There are scenes that directly echo Zhao Liang’s devastating documentary Petition, while the ticking clock generates just as much suspense as any well-executed (an unfortunate choice of words) death-row thriller. Yet frustratingly, One Child comes to a screeching halt whenever it cuts back to Mr. and Mrs. Ashley for another session of their hand-wringing.
Katie Leung plays Mei Ashley as a reasonably down-to-earth fish-out-of-water, without becoming annoyingly helpless. As Qiangyi, Linh Dan Pham is a smart and intriguing screen presence, while Junix Inocian steals scene after scene as Mr. Lin, a dodgy private investigator. Kunjue Li will also make some viewers wish human rights attorney Cheng hua has more screen time. However, Mardy Ma delivers the real punch to the solar plexus as Ashley’s achingly distraught birthmother, a true proletarian repeatedly victimized by the Party’s policies and corruption.
Frankly, when the Ashleys are not whining, One Child is a tight, tense, and topical international legal drama. Although One Child does not belabor the titular policy, the pain and guilt it causes are reflected with great sensitivity in every one of Ma’s scenes. It is also an opportune reminder how dangerous it is to practice law in an honest and independent manner under the CCP. Just ask Ai Weiwei’s former lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, currently in prison, awaiting prosecution on highly specious charges. One Child gives viewers a sneak peak at the sort of challenges his defense team will face. Highly recommended as a gripping indictment of corruption and a complicated portrait of a post-“One Child Policy” family, One Child parts one and two air this Friday (12/5) and Saturday (12/6) on SundanceTV.