‘Expats’ series review: Lulu Wang’s exquisite drama is sometimes lost in translation

Nicole Kidman in a still from ‘Expats’

Nicole Kidman in a still from ‘Expats’

If nothing else, Expats should make the case for Nicole Kidman to cement her reign as the queen of current-day prestige television dramas. 

After Big Little Lies, The Undoing and Nine Perfect Strangers — she has two more of the ilk in the pipeline — Kidman is back in another lavish adaptation in which she plays a privileged woman at the centre of a mystery. 

This time, it’s the case of a missing child in Hong Kong; a sudden, unfortunate incident that sends shockwaves into the interconnected lives and families of three American women in the city, and disrupts their existence as they know it.

Helmed by The Farwell filmmaker Lulu Wang, the six episodes, which swing back and forth between multiple timelines, detail the lives, loves and lies of these expats in 2014 Hong Kong (during the time of the Umbrella Movement protests) wading through a dense sea of cultural reckonings. 

There’s Margaret (Kidman) and her husband Clark (Brian Tee), who have moved to Hong Kong with their children due to the latter’s high-paying job, and now reside in a luxurious apartment that’s appropriately named The Peak. Margaret, who has given up her career as an architect in the US, longs to return home, but still enjoys the many comforts of their expatriate life such as having a full-time nanny (or “helper” as they are referred to) to take care of the kids. 

Ji-young Yoo in a still from ‘Expats’

Ji-young Yoo in a still from ‘Expats’

Tragedy strikes when she loses her youngest son Gus at the night market, after he is left in the care of Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a young Columbia graduate in Hong Kong, who befriends the family by chance. Reeling from the incident, Margaret spirals out of control from the guilt, as she desperately holds on to the hope that the police might track down Gus; her husband and two other kids are shattered by Margaret’s erratic behaviour, as they struggle to keep things together while she falls apart.

Meanwhile, Mercy, already dealing with a lifetime of being told that she’s “unlucky” and “cursed” by her family, embarks on a series of self-destructive decisions in the horrific wake of the pain she’s caused Margaret. From fluctuating between unsteady jobs to having a terribly-timed affair with an older man, her casual demeanor belies the anxiety and trauma she’s fighting internally. Yoo, in her first major starring role, is superbly cast as the 20-something Mercy who is lost in translation, and holds her own against the other seasoned veterans, even outshining them occasionally. 

But it is Sarayu Blue as the Indian-American Hilary who is the pick of the lot, absolutely crushing her storyline that always stays engrossing in Blue’s capable hands. Hilary, who is a close friend and neighbour to Margaret and Clark, is caught between a deteriorating marriage with her husband David (Jack Huston) and her Indian parents’ insistence that she become a mother soon. As she tries to cover up her deepening mid-life crisis with expensive clothes and dinner parties, Hilary’s equation with Margaret is also broken — seemingly irreparably — after Gus’ disappearance. 

Based on the novel by Janice Y.K. Lee, Expats seeks to provide answers (or does it?) to all these disparate threads, in a rich exploration of class, race and grief. To Wang’s credit, she never tries to find solutions where there are none, instead letting us follow these complex characters on their journeys to figure out how to make sense of their realities.

Sarayu Blue in ‘Expats’

Sarayu Blue in ‘Expats’

However, with Kidman in the lead, there’s always a sense of déjà vu creeping in, even though the actor tries her best to infuse her role with just the right amount of gravitas to keep us invested. The several intertwined narratives derail from the main plot way too often — leading to a messy almost-conclusion that will only satisfy some – while the laboured pacing, though intentional, doesn’t quite hit the mark always.

Still, Wang deserves praise for her handling of the fifth episode in the series, which almost plays out like a stand-alone film in itself. Over 90 minutes, she moves the camera away from the lives of the expats and instead focuses on their “helpers” — Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla) — in the backdrop of the mass political protests being organised amidst torrential rainfall. We finally get some insight into the lives of Essie and Puri (and other helpers like them) outside the homes of the American families where they are employed, as they share their dreams, fears and comforts with each other. It makes for exquisite, riveting viewing — but not all the time.

Expats is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

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