Why the subtle observations of cloistered lives in 'Expats' might touch a nerve

A slow-burn drama about privilege and wealth in Hong Kong is both flawless and flawed

Actors Ji-young Yoo and Nicole Kidman in a scene for the Amazon Prime series 'Expats'. EPA
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The Amazon Prime streaming series, Expats, is winding its way towards a conclusion after weeks of the platform drip feeding episodes to global audiences, except in Hong Kong, where it was filmed but hasn’t been released.

The series, which is set during the 2014 umbrella movement protests in the city but also shifts around its timeline, courted controversy from the moment the cast and crew arrived in Hong Kong in 2021 to begin filming. The production was given exemptions from the strict Covid-19 quarantine rules that were in place in the territory at the time and became a lightning rod for commentary about the rights and wrongs of that eventuality.

The finished product does not bear the tell-tale hallmarks of some other Covid-19 era produced dramas, such as socially distanced principal players or small casts. The reverse is true, in fact, with a densely populated family function, an upscale weekend trip on a party boat and a visit to a crowded night market all being key narrative scenes in a drama that has also provoked a strong critical response since it began streaming.

Bloomberg’s Janet Paskin called it “bleak and boring”, The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan said Nicole Kidman was “running on fumes” in her starring role as Margaret, a privileged American expat who describes herself as “not a housewife” when asked by a young, enthusiastic party planner at the beginning of the series about what she does. The Daily Beast’s Fletcher Peters, meanwhile, rated Kidman’s performance as “pitch-perfect”. Others have been equally effusive in their praise.

So is this slow-burn drama based on the 2016 book The Expatriates by Janice Y K Lee flawed or flawless? It’s probably both.

Some of the criticism of Kidman has suggested she is reprising a role audiences have become familiar with in several recent big-budget series, including The Undoing and Big Little Lies. While there is an element of that, her portrayal of Margaret in Expats also holds a very nice line in gilded-cage tragedy.

The series is also very astute in the more subtle and multiple observations on how some expats intersect with the cities they build lives in – as well as the "high days and holidays" calendar planning of the wealthy.

The adverb there is important, however, as Expats is largely a tale of privilege rather than an every person fable. Only Mercy, played by Ji-young Yoo, shuttles properly between the world of cloistered wealth and a more regular version of Hong Kong not often seen by those well-off temporary implants.

It is a moment of distraction from Mercy – no massive spoilers here – that is at the heart of the storyline and which all the characters are ultimately defined by. That moment occurs during an almost anthropological visit by Margaret, her three kids and Mercy to a busy neon lights and puppy dogs night market. It is also deliciously on point as a route to illustrate the limited ways those who live in gated enclaves appear to intersect with the city.

The hired help they employ are used to illustrate the bubble the central characters exist in and their lack of curiosity about the world

In the opening episode, we also see Hilary, played by Sarayu Blue, and the third of the principal women at the centre of the tragedy, on a morning run around the leafy residential development where both she and Margaret live. It’s high up in the rarefied environs of Hong Kong’s peaks, which as some critics have already noted, is a not-so-subtle way of establishing the world of wealth that both women live in.

What quickly becomes clear is that Hilary and Margaret were once inseparable fast friends, bonded by the experience of arrival and rebirth in a city they have now lost their way in. By the time we meet them there is an awkwardness about their relationship caused by the fallout from the tragi-mystery at the centre of the piece.

The visual shorthand for that distance – again a clever touch – is Hilary pressing the button to close the doors of their apartment building lift so she doesn’t have to share the elevator as Margaret and family race towards it through the building’s lobby. Margaret’s kids refer to Hilary as "aunty" as they bustle across the foyer, another nice throw to friends being family in unfamiliar environs.

Both Hilary and Margaret are bound by living in relationships and families where the cracks are ever more exposed as the series progresses.

We see Hilary’s husband David, nursing his on-off alcoholism in an Irish bar and Hilary addressed as Harpreet by her visiting mother. The former vignette suggests an alien transplant retreating to familiar but poisonous solace and the latter speaks to the reinvention process of moving to a new city and shedding the conventions of the past.

Margaret’s daughter, Daisy, meanwhile obsessively watches rolling news coverage of the MH370 tragedy, which slipped from radars in March 2014, another pointer towards the missing person storyline at the heart of the series and, perhaps, as a cipher for the lost lives of the family’s own frayed existence.

The hired help that both Margaret and Hilary employ – domestic workers and drivers – are used as ways to illustrate the bubble the central characters exist in and their almost total lack of curiosity about the world beyond their high-end apartments and the back seats of their limousines.

As an observational piece, the series scores points consistently. As a drama series, we will have to wait and see, but these sideways glances at expats are so well realised – with all their attendant discomfort – that it is hard to keep your eyes off this Lulu Wang-directed tale of wealth, glamour and boorish party guests who are completely lost in their own opinions and biases.

Published: February 16, 2024, 4:00 AM