January 23, 2024

Television

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

By Tara Kenny
Two women on a train smile and shake hands

Ji-young Yoo and Bonde Sham in Expats

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

In the fifth episode of Expats – the new drama series from director Lulu Wang (The Farewell) about American expats in Hong Kong, now on Prime – Hilary (Sarayu Blue), an Indian-American career woman, is red-wine drunk with Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla), her live-in Filipino housekeeper. Hilary’s reluctance to drink alone amid the collapse of her marriage has necessitated a breach of the women’s otherwise formal dynamic. They experiment with make-up and play dress-ups, and Hilary encourages Puri not to let anyone tell her what she can or can’t do in life. The next morning, the facade of sisterhood is shattered by Hilary’s bleating, hungover demands for Puri to bring her coffee and eggs in bed, “the way I like them.”

Based on Janice Y.K. Lee’s novel The Expatriates, Expats is full of small moments that highlight the intense proximity and insurmountable distance that coexist between Hong Kong’s Western corporate class and the other foreign workers who make their frictionless lives possible. The show traces the intersecting journeys of Hilary; her friend Margaret (Nicole Kidman), a taut-faced “trailing spouse” who has relocated her family to the island for her husband’s work; and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a reckless Korean-American Ivy League graduate whose life is stalling. The buffered world these women inhabit would lull anyone into assuming that nothing truly bad could ever befall them; Expats examines what happens when unlikely tragedy strikes.

The first episode begins with the premise that in stories of accidental catastrophe – a play fight between siblings leaves one of them a paraplegic; a law-abiding citizen falls asleep at the wheel and ploughs into a crowd of bystanders – we tend to focus on the victims. From there, Expats sets out to home in on the unwitting perpetrators in such incidents and the ripple effects on their lives. While it’s an interesting enough proposition, the depictions of characters attempting to find meaning in the wake of disasters of varying degrees are largely trite, shallow and overly dramatic. As established in Big Little Lies and The Undoing, Kidman can embody a troubled society wife convincingly, but here, too many overdrawn meltdowns and family screaming matches stymy the potential for her grief and inner turmoil to be communicated with subtlety. An over-reliance on monologue and voice-over narration of passages from the book, which are meant to provide meaning and emotional depth, only highlights the futility of trying to convey grief and pain through language alone. The show’s writers would have done well to heed the basic “show, don’t tell” rule.

Expats does offer an interesting examination of how privilege and class play out in Hong Kong’s expat communities, particularly among Westerners who enjoy the benefits of a lifestyle they would not be able to afford at home while superficially attempting to hold onto cultural ideals of equality. Mothers refer to their nannies as “family” but tut-tut when the kids begin to show preference for the help over them. Businessmen attempt chummy man-to-man chats with their drivers and throw up their hands in frustration when they’re met with rote “yes, sir” responses. In other words, they want to live as overlords without the existential distress that rigid economic hierarchies evoke.

Expats peaks in its fifth episode, which brings previously sidelined domestic workers and local characters into focus. It’s a delight to sit streetside on cardboard chairs with Puri and her friends as they play bingo and gossip; to listen in as Margaret’s nanny Essie (Ruby Ruiz) reflects on raising someone else’s children while watching her own grandkids grow up via FaceTime; and to experience the mounting energy of the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution” pro-democracy protests through the eyes of Mercy’s local friend Charly (Bonde Sham). These characters occupy messy, vibrant public spaces that contrast starkly with the cool, muted high-rises and hotel restaurants of the expat world, and they enjoy non-transactional relationships of mutual support that largely elude Hilary, Margaret and Mercy. While this episode is fresh and thought-provoking, it’s a shame that the show’s most interesting characters and environments command such limited airtime. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a series set in Hong Kong centred on moneyed expats rather than Filipino domestic workers or local communities, but Expats fails to move beyond surface-level observations about the nature of inequality and grief. There is already an abundance of entertainment about entitled Americans; bar its rich Hong Kongese setting, this addition to the genre has nothing incisive to add.

Worth a look

Boy Swallows Universe (Netflix) brings Trent Dalton’s blockbuster debut novel, loosely based on his tumultuous childhood in a family of Aussie battlers with flexible relationships to the law, to the small screen. For fans of: 1980s Australiana, rose-coloured glasses and coming to terms with complex parents.

Senator Alex Irving (Deborah Mailman) is back and ready to inject some much-needed guts and charisma into Australian politics for the third and final season of Total Control (ABC iView), which brings critical issues such as First Nations youth incarceration and misogyny in parliament to life. For fans of: playing dirty and suspiciously attractive politicians.

Last year, an unhinged cheating scandal catapulted the long-running reality-TV show Vanderpump Rules (Binge, January 31) to mainstream relevance, with New York Times explainers and Emmy nominations. Now, the cast of Los Angeles waiters-turned-podcasters must keep the drama going for an 11th season. For fans of: post break-up glow ups, creative insults and despicable men.

Tara Kenny

Tara Kenny is a culture writer and The Monthly’s television critic. Online, she is @slurpette.

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