Nicole Kidman tends to be cast as the elite, traumatised and fiercely maternal heroine. Her more recent and popular roles in Big Little Lies and The Undoing conform to that, and yet there’s so much idiosyncratic depth in those striking eyes. In Expats – the first TV project by The Farewell filmmaker Lulu Wang – those eyes look like they’ve been frozen for years, desperate to melt.
And for good reason: she’s playing the wealthy socialite Margaret, whose youngest son Gus goes missing in a Hong Kong marketplace. Although it’s a role often seen on television, Kidman throws herself in with unparalleled immersion – her character constantly tightrope-walking the deathly line between a calm exterior and losing it completely, between torturous anticipation and irreparable grief.
Though Margaret takes the spotlight, she shares the stage with two other expatriates in Hong Kong – the city on the verge of mass protest with the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. The Korean-American millennial Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) is at least partly responsible for Gus’s disappearance, and she lives in guilt alongside the aimless, mandatory ennui of being in your mid-20s. And then there’s Margaret’s Indian-American neighbour Hilary (Sarayu Blue), who struggles to conceive a baby with her philandering husband and constantly fields questions about being childless at 40.
Bonde Sham and Ji-young Yoo as Charly and Mercy. Photo: Amazon
Whereas a more plot-driven series, like The Missing, would proceed with the twists and turns involved in finding the disappeared, Wang pushes for a more character-led, stream-of-consciousness experience. You drift between these women, all privileged in some way, who find themselves strangled by their circumstances.
Exacerbated by societal pressures, they strain to avoid or adhere to certain patriarchal expectations: usually around marriage and children. Gus’s gaping absence kicks all of them into a state of re-evaluation, starting immediately with Mercy as she sees herself through a filter of famous tragedies that swarm her mind (‘People like me … were they ever forgiven?’). They wield similar desires for liberation, mirroring the umbrella-wielding protestors down the road.
At times, this six-part series suffers from being relentlessly dour and intense with few lighter moments to breathe. Even the second episode, taking place before the incident, is filled with dread for what will happen. But given the subject matter, it’s hard not to see the reality of those ubiquitous emotions. Adapting the book by Janice Y K Lee (who also pens the final episode), Wang crafts a stunning and tragic milieu – wisping back and forth between characters with precise, psychological detail.
Amelyn Pardenilla and Sarayu Blue as Puri and Hilary. Photo: Amazon
Finding the child is almost irrelevant. Expats is concerned less about the outcome and more about how the women operate in several cages at once. Margaret has the life of a patriarchally ideal woman, but losing her child has thrown most of those elements into redundancy. Hilary has the husband and lavish lifestyle, but she’s doubtful about the need for children – to the scorn of her hyper-judgemental mother. Mercy is trapped in a different way: not only because of a heavy conscience, but also her fear to start a life; her aversion or reluctance to tick the right boxes.
The structure is delightfully unpredictable. Just when you’re settled into the privilege of the characters, Wang turns minor characters into protagonists and vice versa. The fifth episode explores the housekeepers who accomplish the chores for Margaret and Hilary, as well as one of Mercy’s potential flings, and each of them participates in the Umbrella protests. It’s a breathtaking 90 minutes of television, opening to the collective consciousness of the city: tall and bustling and awash with flavour.
Each woman has their demons to exorcise, and sometimes it's hard to care equally about their confluent stories. However, Expats still draws you in with such rounded, detailed women at the end of their tethers and coasting in a city on the cusp of change.
Expats is available on Prime Video from Friday 26 January.
|Expats, Prime Video review
26 Jan 24 – 26 Jan 25, ON PRIME VIDEO
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