In between bouts of sweaty fever I’ve managed to get a load of this three-part series, which started last night and feels rather topical after the Chinese celebrated New Year earlier on this week. One Child might be flying under the radar a bit – thanks to higher profile offerings likes Happy Valley and The People v OJ Simpson – which is a shame but it’s well worth a look, mainly because it’s not your usual crime story or procedural. It’s a modern, trans-continental noir that’s very well written and acted and sheds new light on touching, cross-cultural familial relations.
NB. Spoilers ahoy!
One Child tells the story of Mei (Katie Leung, who’s best known for her work in the Harry Potter films), who was born in China but brought up in the UK.
The story actually starts back in China, though, in the city of Guangzhou, where a young man enjoys a night out at a club. As the tribal house music pounds away in the background, we centre in on the young man, who revels in the atmosphere – the warm, amniotic buzz provided by neon pulses, the music and the drink and the coke. But then things turn nasty. He spies a beautiful young dancer on-stage and, with all these substances sloshing about inside him, good-natured partying turns into primal aggression, and he decides to steam in to claim what he thinks is his (why do men always do this?). When he’s met by bouncers and thrown out he ends up bottling one of them – fatally – in the neck. Just happening to be walking by is a young man called Ajun, who witnesses the incident.
Six months later and we learn that Ajun was, unbelievably, convicted of the crime and has been sentenced to death. Why? While studying in a library here in the UK, astronomy student Mei is quietly studying in a library when she takes a video message from a journalist in Guangzhou that changes her life. The journalist – Pan Qianyi – pleads with Mei to come ‘home’ back to her ‘mother’, who desperately needs her help with Ajun’s case. It turns out Mei was given away at birth and raised in the UK, never meeting her natural birth mother.
Already this gives rise to questions of identity and thoughts of where she really comes from. Despite resistance from her adoptive parents Mei wants to go, the lure of meeting her birth mother too strong, even although she knows it’ll be a strange experience and, because there’s a man convicted of murder on the other side of the world, potentially dangerous.
Things really get going when Mei arrives in Guangzhou and meets her mother, Liu Ying, for the first time. It’s an uncomfortable first meeting. Ushered into her tiny apartment in the slums of the city, Mei can’t bear to look at her, buried feelings of rejection and abandonment prickling her skin and rising up within her like a geyser. Mei is a confident, independent, intelligent young woman, but this meeting sees her shrink into a child, desperate for the acceptance of her mother. On the other hand, Liu Ying is understandably delighted at her arrival, but not for the reasons Mei needs her to be. Everything in her frantic conversation is focused on Ajun – quite naturally – because there are only three weeks until his appeal. Mei wonders what an astronomy student can do to help, but more urgently is shell-shocked to find that her mother doesn’t even feel the need to say sorry for giving her away.
This pushes some intriguing and emotional buttons here. Mei is desperate for approval and acceptance from her mother, while at the same time she feels angry and snubbed yet again.
It’s in this discombobulated state that makes One Child a modern noir story – her safe, middle-class student world back in the UK gives way to the teeming streets of Guangzhou, the uncertainty of mixed identity and, as she inevitably peers into Ajun’s case deeper, exposed to some horrendous corruption in the local police. A good noir tale depicts its main character starting to make sense of chaos, and One Child is no different – and soon enough we see Mei if not start to make sense of it all, start to accept her family ties.
Mei tentatively starts to build bridges with Liu Ying, who, in turn starts to open up about why she gave her daughter away (it was because of the ‘one child’ policy at the time and her husband had decided he wanted a son). These touching scenes only plunge Mei deeper into the case and she wants to help Ajun who, after meeting him, instantly feels connected. And this is what this thought-provoking and intriguing culture-clash drama is – a story of connection and how a crime and a miscarriage of justice can bring a scattered family back together again.