Sunday, January 02, 2022

Tiananmen Square on TV: The Spirit of Liberty Moon

Lately, Hollywood has been roundly and justifiably criticized for self-censoring to pander to China, but the major studios and networks have never been especially bold addressing the CCP’s human rights abuses. The Tiananmen Square massacre was a huge international story, but you will be hard-pressed to find it turn up as an element in dramatic storylines. As far as we can tell, there have only been Tiananmen-themed episodes of MacGyver (the 1980s one), Psi Factor (technically Canadian), and Touched by an Angel. The latter is not exactly our cup of tea, but fair is fair and credit is due where its deserved. A survivor of the Massacre returns with the show’s three angels in search of her missing daughter in the two-part episode “The Spirit of Liberty Moon,” which airs this Monday and Tuesday mornings on Start TV (whatever that is).

If you’ve never seen this show before, apparently Monica is an angel who takes an active role helping people in need. Tess is her boss, who turns up periodically to give them a nudge and Andrew is the utility angel. In this episode, Jean Chang is a former Chinese dissident living modestly in America, who yearns to reunite with her daughter Liberty Moon, but it is her boss at the toy company, Edward Tanner, whose soul needs saving. Frankly, his obnoxious partner Alex Stella is probably a lost cause.

Tanner and Stella are determined to move their manufacturing to China, for obvious cost reasons. Magically, Monic appears as their Chinese management consultant. Chang happens to be the only Chinese speaker on staff, but she is reluctant to join their trip. With the angel’s coaxing, she explains her story to her bosses. It turns out, both of her parents died as a result of the Cultural Revolution. As an orphan, she took inspiration from what she eventually learned was a picture of the Statue of Liberty.

Eventually, Chang moved to Beijing and married “Gus” Gang, a poet and democracy activist. Unfortunately, he was presumed murdered while conducting a hunger strike on Tiananmen Square. Their friend “George” was caring for their infant daughter during the protests, but they both disappeared by the time Chang returned to their home. Somehow, Monica thinks she can slip Chang through Chinese immigration, which seems like a tall order even for the Archangel Michael, but it is a dramatic necessity to get Chang back to Beijing.

The first episode of this two-parter does a fantastic job integrating flashback and archival footage into the narrative. Referencing the Cultural Revolution as well as the Tiananmen Square massacre earns it bonus points. However, the most pointed material is the brutal depiction of China’s so-called justice system. Viewers should be warned writer Martha Williamson never cops out regarding the CCP’s ruthlessness, which gives the episodes a tragic edge.

She also really leans into the religious aspects of the show’s premise. There is some heavy God talk down the stretch, but you have to respect it for having the courage of its convictions.

It also provides a showcase for Bai Ling that could radically alter your perception of her. She gives a wonderfully sensitive and quietly nuanced performance as Chang. Frankly, it makes us want to see her get another chance in a more serious vehicle than the straight-VOD paychecks (like
6 Ways to Die and Maximum Impact) she has lately been stuck in. Adrian Pasdar has some nice chemistry with her and series star Roma Downey brings some unexpected dramatic heft to angelic role in climactic moments.

These episodes premiered in 1998, which seems a lifetime ago, in terms of China’s foreign policy and economic development. Yet, it reminds us the fundamental nature of the CCP regime has not changed due to our engagement—it’s only gotten worse. It also reminds us of the Jean Changs and Gus Gangs who can no longer speak for themselves. Dramatically, they also hold up pretty well, especially if considered a representative of Christian drama. In fact, this two-parter was so popular, it had a separate VHS release and a novelization. Recommended as a rare TV show willing to explore the Tiananmen Square Massacre, “The Spirit of Liberty Moon Part 1 & 2” air Monday (9:00 AM EST) & Tuesday (8:00 AM EST) (1/3 & 1/4) on Start TV--and it streams on Pluto TV.