Haunting in Hong Kong: Nicole Kidman-Led Miniseries 'Expats' Is Another Must-See From 'The Farewell' Director Lulu Wang

Following three American women living abroad, the six-part streaming series is based on the 2016 novel by Janice YK Lee.
Sarah Ward
Published on January 24, 2024

When 2019's The Farewell won Awkwafina a Golden Globe for Best Actress — Musical or Comedy, it did so for a nuanced and affecting performance that dwelled in the space between putting on a happy face for the world and confronting what you're truly feeling inside. Following a China-born, New York-raised woman upon her return home to see her dying grandmother, the film used its semi-autobiographical scenario as fuel for an incisive and thoughtful character study. Writer/director Lulu Wang's feature spread further, however, as a broader portrait about the ties and lies that bind families, plus the societal and cultural surroundings that enforce expectations and dictate choices.

Adapting Janice YK Lee's 2016 novel The Expatriates, Wang's first major stint behind the lens since The Farewell starts streaming via Prime Video from Friday, January 26. Dubbed Expats as a miniseries, the six-parter marks a shift in location to Hong Kong and a splinter in focus to three protagonists, but its guiding force — with Wang creating the show, executive producing, helming all six episodes and writing two — is still plunging deep into bonds of blood, deceptions amid close relationships, grappling with grief and tragedy, and being caught between how one is meant to carry on and inescapable inner emotions. It too sees not only people but also its chosen place. It's a haunting series and, albeit not literally in the horror sense, a series about women haunted.

As Margaret Woo, an American landscape architect who has relocated to Hong Kong for her husband Clarke's (Brian Tee, Chicago Med) job, Nicole Kidman (Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom) is in familiar territory. In Big Little Lies, The Undoing and Nine Perfect Strangers, all fellow small-screen efforts that she also executive produced, she similarly played characters tormented: by a horrific husband, a murder case and loss, respectively. She's well-experienced at stepping into the shoes of women bearing anguish and heartbreak while living privileged existences as well, and at sporting the masks demanded when there's a status quo to uphold. But Kidman isn't one to turn in the same traumatised performance again and again, even if she's repeatedly drawn to such roles. Here, Margaret's seesawing between relentlessly soldiering on and being unable to flee her desperation says everything about someone who is rarely able to admit the truth of her feelings even to herself.

The year is 2014, and the Woos aren't new Hong Kong arrivals — but their past 12 months have been under a shadow ever since their youngest son Gus (debutant Connor James) went missing. No one is coping, including elder children Daisy (Tiana Gowen, True Love Blooms) and Philip (Bodhi del Rosario, 9-1-1). But while Margaret refuses to give up hope of finding her three-year-old boy, there are still lives to lead and, to help start Expats, a 50th birthday party for Clarke to host. In the lift at The Peak, the towering symbol of wealth inhabited by plenty who give the show its title, she's also insistent that her friend, downstairs neighbour and fellow American Hilary Starr (Sarayu Blue, A Million Miles Away) attend the shindig. The frostiness that fills the elevator also stems from Gus' disappearance, and accusations made against Hilary's recovering-alcoholic husband David (Jack Huston, Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches).

Unpacking Hilary's plight provides the second of Expat's interconnected character studies, as the successful businesswoman treads water in a marriage where going through the motions is among the few shared traits remaining. Despite their quest to start a family, she's started secretly taking birth control again. Hilary and David do still boast something else in common, though: an inability to shake their hurt at each other over secrets, reactions and never believing that they're on the same page. Frequently dressed in tan- and beige-hued jumpsuits, Blue plays her part with no less potency than Kidman, but with softer edges. At her extremes, Hilary is deliberate rather than steely and quietly fragile instead of achingly frenzied.

Completing Expats' triangle is Mercy (Ji-young Yoo, The Sky Is Everywhere), a Korean American in her twenties working gig-economy jobs, residing in far-more-ordinary digs and happiest about Hong Kong's distance from her mother. With the friends that she's collected in her time in the city, she flits in and out. On her catering assignments, she weaves around well-to-do crowds. She feels like an outsider in multiple ways, and is also convinced that she's cursed. It's Mercy's narration that kicks off the series, talking about the people who unwittingly spark life-changing tragedies, plus the world's quick-to-forget attitudes towards their guilt and agony — voiceover that not only assists in connecting the narrative's web-like strands, but expresses vulnerability and pain that Yoo's shattering performance is always endeavouring to plaster over with anything that the character can even fleetingly grasp onto.

Every city is home to a mourning mother with other kids to try to put on a brave face for, women stuck in fraying marriages and restless young souls keen to discover who they want to be. Every place has an expat community of folks who've relocated for love, employment and fresh chances, some or none of which might've worked out nicely. Every town includes those who can't move away even after they've weathered the worst that their life has thrown at them in their adopted spot. Every locale is inhabited by some who don't feel like they quite belong, but are also certain that they'd feel the same even if they retraced their steps. As probingly and naturalistically lensed by Wang's returning The Farewell cinematographer Anna Franquesa-Solano, and as purposefully set in a year where protests took to the streets against China's role in the special administrative region's elections, Hong Kong isn't just any city to Expats, however.

Wang also spends time with two Filipino women who work as live-in helpers away from their own families, the Woos' nanny Essie (Ruby Ruiz, In His Mother's Eyes) and the Starrs' housekeeper Puri (first-timer Amelyn Pardenilla). They're regular presences in Expats' first four episodes, then get pushed to the fore in its movie-length fifth episode, alongside local students (including Sparks' Bonde Sham as Charly) among the Umbrella Movement who are fighting for better futures. The series sees their hopes, wants, dreams and disappointments, too. It stares unflinchingly at the chasm between their Hong Kong and the one navigated by wealthy transplants. Crucially, this drama puts comfortable existences, woes and all, into stark context. A different series could've been made with Essie, Puri, Charly and company firmly at the centre — but in this tale of three Americans adrift with their sorrows, where and the reality that surrounds them is equally as important as how and why.

Check out the trailer for Expats below:

Expats streams via Prime Video from Friday, January 26.

Published on January 24, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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