Expats review: Nicole Kidman leads a sluggish tale of emigrant grief

Expats, the long-awaited Prime Video drama set in Hong Kong, stirred controversy during its production due to exemptions from Covid-19 quarantine rules granted to star Nicole Kidman. Critics also highlighted the uneasy juxtaposition of filming a series about privileged expatriates amid the backdrop of civil rights crackdowns following protests.

However, now that the six-part limited series has premiered, the actual show fails to live up to the intrigue of its controversies. Based on Janice Y. K. Lee’s novel The Expatriates, Expats offers a visually stunning yet languid character study, despite an outstanding performance by Sarayu Blue.

The story revolves around Clarke Woo (Brian Tee), who is celebrating his 50th birthday with a lavish party arranged by his wife, Margaret (Kidman). Despite objections from Clarke’s parents (Gabrielle Chan and Edmund Ng), Margaret insists on the event to restore a sense of normalcy after their youngest son, Gus (Connor James), disappeared a year ago. Their daughter, Daisy (Tiana Gowen), fixates on a vanished flight, while their son Philip (Bodhi del Rosario) depicts Gus with religious imagery, much to Margaret’s dismay.

The ripple effects extend to Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a Korean American whose life intersects with Margaret’s on a yacht, and Hilary (Blue), Margaret’s former best friend and fellow expat. Hilary struggles to maintain her marriage to David (Jack Huston) after a revelation about him surfaces following Gus’ disappearance.

Expats Season 1

Expats, penned by Lulu Wang (known for The Farewell), weaves between two timelines — before and after the disappearance of Gus — delving into the lives of Margaret and her circle. The series delves into the enigmatic nature of human relationships, highlighting the resilience of even the most fragile connections, which contributes to its deliberately slow pace. Margaret, like many expatriate wives in Hong Kong, grapples with a sense of displacement after relocating from New York with Clarke. However, leaving Hong Kong, where Gus was last seen, is inconceivable. Margaret’s existential crisis is compounded by her growing uncertainty about their Filipino housekeeper and nanny, Essie, whom the children adore.

In contrast, Hilary enjoys professional success but struggles in her marriage to David, who desires children while she grapples with her reluctance to become a mother. Meanwhile, Mercy carries a burden of guilt and a belief in her inherent misfortune, leading her to resist opportunities for happiness, including a budding romance with a student activist named Charly.

The characters’ inertia often culminates in moments of raw honesty. Clarke, trapped in a mainland China waiting room, unleashes pent-up resentment at Margaret, only to immediately regret his outburst. Similarly, Hilary reveals a dark family secret during a tense encounter in an elevator, showcasing Sarayu Blue’s poignant portrayal of a woman who guards herself against love to survive.

Expats Season 1

Expats navigates moments of catharsis sparingly, preferring to immerse viewers in the characters’ challenging emotions—guilt, doubt, fear, and isolation—much like the characters themselves. However, rather than delving into substantial character development, the series often relies on extended, silent sequences or wordless scenes of Mercy navigating the city. Despite this, the penultimate episode attempts to introduce new subplots, such as vaguely defined student protests involving Charly’s friend Tony, which feels like an attempt to address previous criticism of the show being “tone-deaf.”

The series briefly delves into the lives of domestic workers, offering glimpses into their world through characters like Puri, Hilary’s housekeeper. In one poignant scene, Puri joins her friends for a lively game of bingo and gossip in the city park before returning home to witness a heated argument between her employers. Later, she patiently indulges a tipsy Hilary’s attempt to give her a makeover, all while silently acknowledging the dynamics of their relationship—the blurred lines between employer and employee. It’s a powerful depiction of the complexities inherent in such relationships, leaving viewers longing for more exploration in this direction.

Expats isn’t a typical missing-child mystery; instead, it mirrors life’s ambiguity by eschewing clear resolutions or neat closures. In its culmination, the series feels like a collection of separate narratives searching for cohesion, mirroring the multifaceted nature of expatriate life.

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