Director: Lulu Wang
Writers: Lulu Wang, Alice Bell, Vera Miao, Gursimran Sandhu, Janice Y.K. Lee
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sarayu Blue, Ji-young Yoo
Available on: Prime Video
The night is thick and dense, pinpricked by yellow streetlights that gleam determinedly against black immensity. Visible in the darkness are three roads, ribboned with shifty shadows and markings in white paint. They run side by side, empty but for the occasional car or truck that moves through the silence like a softly-exhaled breath, before intertwining briefly and then curving in a different direction, each road arcing to make its own path into the distance. This scene comes at the end of the third episode of The Expats, presenting a very different aspect of famously-crowded Hong Kong. It also feels like a cinematic allegory for director Lulu Wang’s poignant show about three outsiders whose paths cross only because they’ve made their home in the island city.
Set in 2014, The Expats is a thought-provoking adaptation of Janice Y.K. Lee’s novel The Expatriates, in which a tragic incident acts as a catalyst in the lives of a group of people who are expats in Hong Kong. Wang, who is the showrunner, often veers away from the source material, but with the author’s blessings (Lee wrote the screenplay for the last episode). She introduces details and minor characters who bring in diverse perspectives that contrast sharply with the insularity of expatriate life. Both the book and the show have at their heart three women, the beleaguered Fates of a tangled, grief-tinted world. Margaret (Nicole Kidman) is the mother of three, whose life is turned upside down when one of her children goes missing. The immaculately made-up Hilary (Sarayu Blue) is the wife in a crumbling marriage and a daughter burdened by the secrets she keeps to maintain a façade of normalcy. The youngest of the three is Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a Korean American who is plagued by feelings of unbelonging and a need to self-sabotage. When she and Margaret strike up an easy rapport within minutes of meeting, it sets off a spiral that disrupts the status quo for everyone in the show.
Over six episodes, Wang pieces together a delicate tapestry of criss-crossing lives in a melancholy, turbulent Hong Kong where luxury, grief, heartbreak, revolution and redemption rub shoulders with one another. The city is filmed exquisitely by cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, who uses cool tones and rich colours to bring out Hong Kong’s many facets, from concrete resilience to neon moodiness.
In many ways, The Expats is a meditation upon motherhood, which is a topic that Kidman has approached repeatedly in her recent projects. Margaret feels like familiar territory for Kidman, who has the uncomfortable distinction of being the reason this remarkable show exists, but also its weakest link. She’s one of the producers and the star whose celebrity no doubt helped green-light the show, but as an actor, she’s stilted and mechanical. In sharp contrast, Sarayu Blue delivers a standout performance as Hilary, a woman who chafes against the expectation of motherhood and who seems to have spent her adult life fabricating a glossy identity behind which she can hide the reality of being born as Harpreet. Blue brings out Hilary’s brittle composure with grace and she’s magnificent in the scenes where Hilary and Harpreet come together to lash out at those who have straitjacketed her. She’s one of the few actors in the cast of The Expats who can match Kidman for on-screen charisma, which is evident in the scene in which Hilary and Margaret dance to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” in a near-empty restaurant, late at night, giving us a rare euphoric moment in a show that’s steeped in melancholy.
The show opens with Mercy speaking about how she’s more interested in perpetrators than victims because she wants to know how they go on with their lives, slipping back into a certain normalcy that accommodates the trauma of the past. (The singularity of this opening speech is mirrored in the last episode when Margaret, Mercy and Hilary’s spoken lines are intertwined to create the impression of a single, shape-shifting monologue. It’s a stunning sequence that uses the directness of speaking to the camera as a device to lace these three women’s thoughts into one strand.) Yoo is persuasive as the petulant and desperately sad Mercy. She makes sure we see her narcissism and angularities without losing sight of the vulnerability and insecurities that hamstring her.
One of Wang’s gifts as a storyteller is her ability to find in-between spaces where her characters become unmoored from the certainties that define their lives, like when there’s a power cut and the home becomes an unfamiliar place, or the patch of Hong Kong that goes from being a public square to a quasi-personal space when maids occupy it on their days off. One of the most uncomfortable but also compelling episodes in The Expats is one in which Hilary, her mother and a neighbour find themselves trapped in an elevator that’s suspended between floors. They’re literally in limbo and in this purgatory, buried truths come out along with laddoos that Hilary’s mother, who calls her Harpreet, has brought for her daughter (even though Hilary doesn’t like these laddoos).
Wang also makes a concerted effort to weave in multiple perspectives and The Expats quickly establishes that the title refers to more than the stereotype of the foreigner who lives in a bubble of luxury. The Filipina women who work as Hilary and Margaret’s domestic help are also expatriates, for instance, and Wang makes sure they get their time in the spotlight. Hilary’s husband tries to drum up a friendship with their driver at one point and later, he briefly leaves the ivory tower of his expat complex, but it’s obvious he’s out of place everywhere else in Hong Kong. Mercy, with her elite education and modest family background, slips uncomfortably between the world of the champagne set and her grungy apartment. She constantly pushes at boundaries, but the scenes in which she and her lover use insults as foreplay suggest Mercy’s actions are less a rebellion and more a manic need to distract and punish herself.
The Expats is most powerful in its middle episodes, when Wang shows her protagonists unravelling as circumstances push each one to her breaking point. Alongside them, Hong Kong also finds itself at a moment of reckoning as the student-led Umbrella Movement unfurls in the city. In the fifth episode, Wang takes a detour, veering away from the expats to linger with locals instead and offering a glimpse into the lives of those who feel rooted and unable to leave.
Wang was born in China and was six at the time of the student-led protests at Beijing’s Tianmen Square. It was against the backdrop of this political turbulence that she and her mother emigrated to America, where her father was a student. A little more than three decades later, The Expats lets Wang return through her imagination to another landmark student-led demonstration that also ended with police violence, though the Chinese government’s response in 2014 was milder than that of 1989. In the show, the protests emphasise just how different life and the stakes are for expatriates and locals in Hong Kong. It’s also a time of crisis, which causes certain distinctions to temporarily collapse. For a slice of time, the cleaning lady at a convenience store is emotionally on par with Margaret. Both women have lost a child in a crowd and are at the police’s mercy to find out what may have happened to their children. They live in very different worlds — one as a single mother in a tiny apartment; another as a much-married expat, ensconced in an elite neighbourhood — but have parallel experiences because of the city they share.
Unfortunately, despite its elegant storytelling, the plotting of The Expats feels less assured than the nuanced character studies that the show offers. There are numerous unconvincing details and the ending sees Wang dip her toes into melodrama with a scene that belongs to the canon of climaxes at airports, complete with a ‘twist’ that is about as credible as the little boy sprinting past security in Love Actually (2003), but far less charming. Fortunately, the awkward parts of The Expat feel like details that are easily dismissed. Instead, what lingers in memory is Wang’s sensitive filmmaking when she explores the quiet, uncomfortable moments in the lives of the women who hold up the different realities of Hong Kong, a city that is almost dispassionate in its resilience, with streets that return to ‘normal’ after police destroy protest sites and markets that follow their routines of opening and shutting down, untrammelled by the tragedies they have witnessed.