Last week’s Anglo-Chinese story about a young woman searching for her real identity in the sprawling streets of a Chinese city was an understated, below-the-radar noir treat. Now she’s in China and on course to seriously ruffle some feathers in the corrupt establishment, the question is this: can she handle the pressure?
Most noir stories follow a thrilling if familiar pattern – protagonist is plunged into a nightmare situation, loses all bearings and sense of self and reality; then it’s a process of protagonist trying to frantically adapt to the situation he or she finds themselves in until, eventually, they master it. Generally speaking except for a few twists and turns, that is.
There was a sense that episode two of One Child was following this process through. We saw in the first episode that Mei had been wrenched away from her cosy, middle-class student existence in the UK and transported to Guangzhou in China, where her birth mother – who she had never met before – pleaded with her to help prove the innocence of her son, Mei’s brother, Ajun, who had been wrongly convicted of murder (she didn’t know she had a brother either).
So there was the chaos. Mei was drawn into the case because she sensed this would be a way to build bridges with the family she never thought she would meet and threw herself, however naïvely, into the task at hand. This was the adaptation process of the noir story, and in this episode we saw step three: mastering the situation. Striding through the streets trying to get witnesses to change their statements, she looked as though she was gaining in confidence as every minute went by. When these witnesses all refused to change their statements, she enlisted the help of a wily old private detective, who told her that he required £50,000 to do the job. The only way they were going to prove Ajun’s innocence, he said, was to play the corrupt police chief at his own game and be doubly ruthless.
What we saw next was extraordinary. Mei volunteered for a bit of undercover work at a private party hosted by a Nigerian drug runner and a Chinese businessman, who bought drugs from the Nigerian to fuel these exclusive parties. The idea was Mei would be a hostess for the evening and, armed with a secret, hidden camera, she would take photos of the two together. Then the detective could essentially blackmail them into changing their statements.
With the help of Pan Qianyi, she dressed for the occasion. Now striding out into the Guangzhou night in a sleek black business suit and ruby-red lips Mei had literally and metaphorically shed her skin – she had transformed from a cosseted student into a ruthless woman, intent on doing anything to prove her brother’s innocence.
I said in my review of episode one that this was a tale of identity and what it means to have one, and Mei’s rites of passage certainly continued in this episode. But that rites of passage took an ugly twist when she arrived at the party. She thought she was just attending as a hostess, but what she didn’t know was that she was required to have sex with the attendees. By this stage I was totally locked in with Mei and was rooting for her, so to watch her have to have sex with two men and then take cocaine made for uncomfortable viewing. The confidence and naïvety she had shown by throwing herself into her brother’s case crumbled, and concepts of sexuality and control had entered into the story. Who was she? What had she become? What had she allowed herself to become? When she talked to her adoptive parents back home – who had been tearing their hair out with worry ever since she had flown to China – she knew full well that she had changed. Into what she wasn’t sure, but there was no doubt she had changed. And, you know what? They knew it too.
In the end she got the evidence she needed, and with it new statements from all of the witnesses. Suddenly Ajun’s case looked a lot rosier, but I have the feeling the corrupt police chief won’t go down without a fight.
But from the moment Mei went into the private party, the stakes got higher, the tension became more, well tense, and Once Child really shifted gear. I can’t wait to see the conclusion.
For our episode one review, go here