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Under the Gloss: A Look Beyond the Expat Life in Lulu Wang’s “Expats”

Beyond luxury, Expats exposes expat secrets. Nicole Kidman stars in this nuanced drama exploring class, motherhood, and loss in 2014 Hong Kong
Nicole Kidman in 2024 TV series Expats

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The other side of emigration – multilingual and cosmopolitan – in Lulu Wang’s exquisite work (The Farewell). Personal traumas and social issues intertwine in a narrative mechanism that captivates with each episode

They’re dubbed the moneyed migrants. These are groups of fellow countrymen who trail behind multinational corporations, international institutions, and NGOs, spending considerable lengths of time in a foreign country. And if the country is developing, all the better: their hefty salaries coupled with a lower cost of living ensure a lifestyle far beyond their means. Expats represent the flip side of migration. They epitomize the middle-class elite: multilingual, sophisticated, cosmopolitan. They reside in opulent residential areas, equipped with every imaginable luxury, often served by local caretakers, domestic workers, and masseurs. They converse among themselves in English, enroll their children in the country’s top schools, and are mostly Westerners, though the educated and privileged from the East are frequently among their ranks. A defining trait of expats is their self-coining of the term, affirming a group identity distinct from the economic migrant community. This highlights a sense of belonging that, as it turns out, betrays a class legacy. Indeed, they not only live close by, frequent the same spots, enjoy the same benefits, and partake in similar hobbies but also typically remain well separated from the locals (unless to avail themselves of their affordably priced services).

This setting is one that the miniseries directed by Lulu WangExpats, six episodes released on Prime Video weekly, starting January 26 – knows all too well. After all, the director and screenwriter would be the ideal profile of an expat. A Chinese turned American, Wang is the daughter of an editorial curator and a diplomat stationed in the Soviet Union who emigrated with her parents to the United States in 1989, at the age of six, growing up in Miami. A life that echoes in her stunning debut feature, The Farewell. An experience of cultural cross-pollination, existential flexibility, and underlying dislocation, also found in the series produced and starred in by Nicole Kidman, which clearly bears Wang’s cinematic touch as she translates a tailored and personal script (co-written with Janice Y. K. Lee, author of The Expatriates, from which the show is adapted) into elegant visual geometries.

Expats is set in Hong Kong in 2014, right during the “Umbrella Movement” that paralyzed the city’s financial district for 79 days. The activists demanded universal suffrage, China responded with further crackdowns. It’s no coincidence that Hong Kong is among the few places in the world where Expats cannot be viewed. Yet, international tensions are hardly the factual political data of the series. The story focuses on three American women: Margaret (Nicole Kidman), Hilary (Sarayu Blue), and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), whose lives intertwine following a sudden family tragedy. A few years earlier, Margaret’s youngest son had disappeared in Korea while under Mercy’s care, who had offered herself as a babysitter. The three women will find themselves in Hong Kong. The themes, filtered through a tormented female sensibility, are numerous and speak to us of lost and denied motherhood, of forgiveness and guilt, of a sense of retaliation and inadequacy.

The backbone of the six episodes is the discourse on class, what privilege means, and how it impacts the relationships between the characters. Noteworthy is the fifth episode (an hour and a half long!) dedicated to the Filipino domestics serving one of the protagonist families. The men are not mere background: Clarke (Brian Tee) and David (Jack Huston), the husbands of Margaret and Hilary, have their own ghosts. All these characters form a cohesive yet torn circle: the expat family is like a gilded cage, confined in the claustrophobia of warm and comfortable places yet devoid of openings, essentially oppressive. Wang excels in working on the texture of spaces, favoring saturated colors and medium to long focal lengths. And if the atmospheres remain heavy with the unspoken, the dialogues, on the other hand, are sharp, sometimes brutal, giving rhythm and tangible shape to the most intimate dramas unfolding before our eyes.

Gianluca Arnone

Cinematografo, February 2, 2024

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