Lulu Wang's new limited series begins with the outline of a series of dystopian titles. A doctor takes a nap at the wheel, killing three bystanders. A small plane unexpectedly crashes due to bad weather, killing several skiers. Elsewhere, a friendly conflict between two brothers leaves one of them seriously ill. These incidents change these people's lives forever.
As narrated by Mercy (Ji Young Yoo), whose life will also be changed forever by a tragedy, it is a reflection of how each of these news reports never questions what led to the tragedy in the first place. What about the people participating in it? Will the burden of their guilt give way to a better morning?
Expatriates ask these questions with verve and interest, allowing room for perspectives and discoveries. It's a powerful, well-performed show, led by Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman. (Read also: In The Summers review: The passage of time shapes this wonderful father-daughter drama)
The actor plays Margaret, a landscape architect. When we first meet her, we don't know why she's so sad. She is married to Clark (Brian Tee), whose job move has taken them from New York to Hong Kong. She's here with her son and daughter, planning Clark's 50th birthday party. The party is just an excuse to lighten things up, but it goes awry when Margaret discovers Mercy there as a servant. At the very least, this keeps Margaret close to her good friend and neighbor Hilary (Saraiya Blue), an Indian-American expatriate who is having a difficult time accepting her husband.
Wang chooses to build suspense wisely, and we don't come to terms with what really happened until the end of episode two. Under Mercy's care, Margaret's youngest son, Gus (Connor J. Gilman), disappears one evening in the crowded market. Henceforth, Emigrants links the lives of these three women in simultaneous arcs, interrogating not only their responses to grief and anger but also the web of privilege bubbling beneath the surface. Taking the 2014 Umbrella Protests into account as well, there is a multiplication of the variety of ways in which society finds ways to deal with forces it distrusts.
Working here with the talented cinematographer Ana Francaisa Solano, Wang captures the cultural fabric of Hong Kong with a non-judgmental lens. There is a curious eye that watches for crude transgressions, an eye full of guilt and uncertainty. The brilliant fifth episode, almost like a 96-minute indie film in a capsule, shuns the tension and follows the lives of the Woos and the Starrs' family nannies, Essie (Robbie Ruiz, in the show's most sublime performance) and Burri. (Ameline Bardinella) and their families. The shift in perspective, both on laments and arguments about their work and choices as activists, is wonderfully conveyed.
Kidman, who has played many privileged women shaken by some sort of grief in prestige TV dramas to date, is reliably good as Margaret. But Expats finds his true power and light in the hands of Blue and Yoo. One of them was an actress who had been working in supporting roles for a while, and who was finally able to expand into her character. She's a force to behold here. The other gives a true standout performance: complex and engaging at every point. Together with these three women, Expatriates finds a nuanced exploration of motherhood and the grief found in the uncertain spaces of society.
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