Director: Lulu Wang
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sarayu Blue, Ji-young Yoo, Brian Tee, Tiana Gowen, Bodhi del Rosario, Ruby Ruiz, Amelyn Pardenilla and Jack Huston
Being rich is not a superpower…’ most of us may believe otherwise, but life of rich expatriates in foreign lands comes with its own set of challenges. Moreover, what happens when a tragedy strikes home in a place that is not quite their home?
The American drama series Expats, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, based on Janice Y K Lee’s novel The Expatriates, is an intimate portrait set against the 2014 Umbrella Protest movement of Hong Kong.
In the hands of award-winning Lulu Wang, an American-born Chinese filmmaker, Expats trains its lens on tumultuous lives of Margaret Woo (Nicole Kidman) and her family. It unfolds like a thriller, albeit not in the conventional sense.
Clearly, it’s not a happy tale. The shadow of foreboding is palpable from scene one. Margaret is planning a party, which has a funeral like air to it. Only it’s the 50th birthday celebration of her husband Clarke Woo (Brian Tee). Joyous occasion, but no one seems to be happy. Something awful has happened in their lives.
Slowly, we learn what the cause of their despondency is. Margaret’s ‘happy’ family of four actually had another member, the clue for which is laid out when her son makes a drawing and the question pops up — who is Gus? When Margaret tells her American-Indian friend Hillary (lovely and nuanced Sarayu Blue) how she wants a life which is not defined by tragedy or one where she has become a mother of two instead of three, her puzzling predicament begins to make sense. For the first two episodes you keep wondering what happened to Gus, until the mystery around his disappearance is revealed. Yet, the series remains pregnant with tension.
With primetime focus on three women, Margaret, Hillary and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), we see them battling their individual dilemmas yet they are bound by a tragedy. Their lives intercut each other and so does the timeline. If Margaret is a mother coping with the loss of her child, Hillary is trying to make sense of her broken marriage in the light of her ‘no kids’ decision in a country where motherhood defines a woman. Less privileged Korean-American Mercy unwittingly finds herself in an undesirable situation.
It’s not the story of victims but those of perpetrators, who caused the tragedies. Can we look at them empathetically? Yes, especially when theirs is a crime of omission and sheer stroke of bad luck. Mercy believes she is born with misfortune writ on her face. Ah, the complexity of life, of relationships! Here we see fractured lives within the family matrix and also their conflicting ties with domestic helps.
With women at the centre of the drama, will it finally shape up like Big Little Lies, Nicole Kidman’s acclaimed television outing and which too she executive-produced, we don’t know as yet. What we do know is that it’s a riveting piece of drama which simmers, is taut and captivates you with its aching heart and some great performances by its lead actors. Kidman looks beautiful and you can read pain in every nuance of her being, her meltdown moments and her actions too. To escape her grief, she goes to a rented apartment and her ritual of taking a bath in a tub is almost like an ablution.
Despite a woman director at the helm, it’s not just female actors like Sarayu Blue and Ji-young Yoo who come out strong. You see Hilary’s husband David (Jack Huston) hurting as much. The quiet grief of Clarke, who seeks refuge in religion is exemplified in an understated performance by Brian Tee. Hong Kong, especially its night market, emerges as dramatis personae, captured remarkably well by cinematographer Anna Franquesa-Solano. Music by Alex Weston touches the right notes. Now suspenseful, now melancholy and now dramatic, there is a tune for every mood. The song Heart of Glass by Blondie is hauntingly right for the moment in which it is set.
Though only three episodes have dropped so far, Expats is certainly that episodic series you are yearning (and dreading) to watch and can’t wait for the next episode, which drops this Friday. Catch up!