Expats review: Nicole Kidman drama is an insightful look at life abroad

Lulu Wang directs miniseries that revolves around the lives of expatriates in Hong Kong

Brian Tee as Clarke and Nicole Kidman as Margaret in Expats. Photo: Amazon Studios
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In many ways, it's fitting that Amazon Prime Video's new miniseries Expats is set in Hong Kong.

What better place to tell the story of a group of strangers trying to live full lives in their temporary homes than in a thriving former British territory that itself is still in a state of flux politically and socially?

Through the stories of three very different American women whose lives become inextricably linked by fate, Expats weaves together tales of love, loss, regret and our ultimate human desire to belong – somewhere, anywhere.

Anchoring the story is Nicole Kidman's Margaret, a landscape architect who's put her career on hold to join her husband, Clarke (Brian Tee), in Hong Kong along with their three children. Together, along with their Filipina live-in nanny Essie (Ruby Ruiz), they live in a luxury high-rise called The Peak.

Their neighbour, Hillary (Sarayu Blue), Margaret's best friend, is a successful make-up artist who has so far masked her floundering marriage with her husband David (Jack Huston).

While at a yacht party with her family one day, Margaret bumps into Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a sprightly South Korean-American graduate trying to find her place in the world. Impressed by Mercy's easy camaraderie with her youngest son Gus, Margaret asks her if she'd like to babysit the naughty toddler. They decide to then meet at a night market a few days later.

It is at this busy market that Gus goes missing while in Mercy's care. The incident then sets off a series of tragic events as relationships become undone, loyalties are tested and long-concealed wounds are exposed.

Margaret, who had once pleaded with her husband to return home to the US, now can't imagine leaving the city without her lost son. As she unravels, she does not see the effect her grief is having on her two other children and her husband who's desperately trying to hold the family together.

Hillary, meanwhile, attempts but fails to reconnect with her estranged husband, and is about to resign herself to the fact that sometimes people just grow apart. But the arrival of her mother soon convinces her that the answer might lie in her traumatic upbringing.

Hillary is unaware her husband is having a torrid affair with Mercy who, following Gus's disappearance, is set on a path of self destruction.

Along the way, we are introduced to a number of a characters, each adding layers to our three main characters' lives.

But Expats really finds its footing in the fifth episode. With a run-time of almost two hours, this is where Wang peels back the curtain on the lives of the characters we've seen hovering in the background since the beginning of the show.

Essie, Margaret's live-in maid, is as devastated by Gus's disappearance, but quietly hides her pain, distracting herself with video calls to her son and his newborn in the Philippines. And Puri, Hillary's live-in maid, dreams of one day becoming a pop star, and is preparing to audition for a reality show that could change her life.

Set in 2014, the show also takes us right in the middle of the Umbrella Movement, starkly showing us the struggles of Hong Kong residents as they wage a losing fight against much bigger powers.

That sense of displacement eventually hangs over all the characters in the series, intersected with themes of grief, loss, privilege and womanhood.

Wang, who directed the acclaimed 2019 drama The Farewell, helms all six episodes, adapting the story from the 2016 novel, The Expatriates, by Janice Y K Lee.

Playing out like a six-hour long film, Wang takes her time to set each scene as her scope enlarges with each episode as new stories are introduced. With a cinematic flourish that echoes the works of the great Wong Kar-wai, she frames her characters – and the city of Hong Kong – with great intimacy allowing the emotions to slowly build up.

EXPATS

Director: Lulu Wang

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Sarayu Blue, Ji-young Yoo, Brian Tee, Jack Huston

Rating: 4/5

Wang also beautifully captures the weird power dynamics that exists between the affluent and their helpers, who are also like family members. In Margaret's family, for example, her children constantly ask for Essie, much to Margaret's dismay – something many expat families anywhere in the world will be able to identify with.

While Kidman shines as Margaret, the star of the show is Blue, who delivers a career-defining performance as someone torn between expectations and her own desires. Feisty yet insecure but always full of heart, her Hillary, who we later learn is actually Harpreet, is a joy to watch.

Expats is dark. But it is a show that's centred on grief. It is also a nuanced study of choices and regrets. We are all victims of the decisions we make, it tells us. And how we deal with the circumstances ultimately makes us who we are.

Updated: February 20, 2024, 5:48 AM
EXPATS

Director: Lulu Wang

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Sarayu Blue, Ji-young Yoo, Brian Tee, Jack Huston

Rating: 4/5