23 February 2024

Expats is a stoic passage where grief accompanies skillful acting

| Rama Gaind
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Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman stars, along with Sarayu Blue, Ji-young Yoo and Brian Tee in the miniseries Expats, created by Lulu Wang and based on the 2016 novel The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee. Photo: Supplied.

Australian Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman has done a variety of film roles (The Hours, Being the Ricardos, Lion, Moulin Rouge!), but she shines in television series including Big Little Lies, The Undoing, and now Expats.

Kidman leads an ensemble of advantaged, detached American ‘Expats’. As Margaret, a landscape architect, she barely holds it together, lost in a daze, disengaging with her son and daughter and husband Clarke Woo (Brian Tee, Chicago Med, Jurassic World). Clarke’s job is why the family has moved from New York to Hong Kong, but right from the start it’s obvious that family dynamics are anything but happy. The storyline circles around the sudden disappearance of Margaret’s youngest son during a market outing at night, unfolding against the backdrop of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.

We get to take a look at the personal and professional lives of a tight-knit group of expatriates living in Hong Kong. We also get a glimpse into scenarios as the lives of three American women, their clandestine affairs, ardent entanglements and deceit converge on celluloid. In a way, it’s all about adapting.

Anguish, avarice and racism are played out in a languid, fine-looking drama.

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While Margaret struggles with a consuming sense of guilt and bleakness, her companion, Hilary Starr (Sarayu Blue, Sons of Tucson, Lions for Lambs) lives in the same fancy building, and meanders through the minutiae of a crumbling marriage. She and husband, David (Jack Huston) have been unsuccessful in their efforts to have a baby. There’s also undefined tension between the women.

At the same time, a chance meeting with a young woman working catering jobs, Mercy Cho (Ji-young Yoo, (The Sky is Everywhere) descends into a series of self-destructive choices. Her voiceover introduction makes it obvious that she has a story to tell, feels guilty about it and is having trouble moving forward.

Directed by American filmmaker Lulu Wang (The Farewell, Touch, Family Meal,) there are obvious parallels to her personal story. Her family moved from mainland China to the U.S. when she was just six years old. A lot of her experiences were taken into account when she adapted the 2016 novel The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee into the six-episode series.

“I think it’s the core for me of why I did this show,” Lulu said. “I saw that parallel in the journey of Hong Kong and what my family had experienced. It’s the reason that I’m here today. I just feel like everyone’s trying to do the best that they can with the choices that they’re given in every moment. And, you know, luck plays so much into it.”

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Wang not only tells the story of the wealthy expats, but deviates from the novel by digging deeply into the stories of the helpers, the babysitters, maids and cooks who are constantly in the background in the lives of the wealthier characters. Of course, they’re expats, too. She successfully shows another viewpoint, and paints a picture about the choices they have or don’t have.

“I just wanted to show a different perspective of this world,” Lulu said. “What are their lives like. I think that it’s difficult to make a show about privilege and in a world of privilege without feeling like you’re celebrating it. That’s something I’m very conscientious of but also trying not to judge the privilege at the same time.

“If you break out of the bubble by stepping outside of it, with a different context, you view it differently and let the audience make their own judgements. It’s a show about women and mothers and we’re all related. We’re all connected. And using feminism to undermine issues of race and class is so dangerous. And I wanted to represent that.”

Created by Lulu Wang, Expats is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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