Expats – The Multifaceted Layers of Isolation and Connection Featuring Nicole Kidman

SERIES REVIEW – In her inaugural series venture, “Expats,” Lulu Wang explores the intricate themes of solitude, mourning, privilege, and the essence of womanhood through a daring and expansive narrative. This six-hour epic journey grants us a glimpse into the lives of three distinct women, each wrestling with their tragedies in Hong Kong. While occasionally overreaching in its ambitions, the series provokes deep empathy and fresh perspectives as it unfolds the internal worlds of its characters and their complex relationships.



Directed by Lulu Wang, “Expats” captivates audiences with its profound atmosphere and extended scenes. Moving across a broad spectrum, the series stands out for its bold ventures, presenting a unique visual and thematic richness. From motherhood to questions of female identity, the feelings of loneliness and grief, to an analysis of privileges and the often alienating circumstances of immigrants, it covers a wide range of topics. Yet, it doesn’t stop there: “Expats” also seeks to answer whether individuals, especially women, can process and overcome their tragedies while examining the agonies of human existence, an endeavor no small in scope.

Wang’s previous success, the film “The Farewell,” similarly unravels the complex web of family ties, cultural and geographical chasms. However, this time it seems as if she presents six “Farewells” at once, cumulatively spanning over six hours – and while TV productions are often hard to compare to films, this approach is entirely apt here. Despite its sprawling storytelling – which at times poses challenges – “Expats” consistently maintains interest and prompts profound reflection. It invites viewers to open their hearts and minds to the characters as they navigate through the series’ diverse emotional layers. The story, based on Janice Y.K. Lee’s 2016 novel “The Expatriates,” offers a deeply woven narrative following the lives of three women living in Hong Kong, each feeling alien in their own lives, struggling with the aftermath of personal tragedies as they seek to rediscover themselves and their places in the world.



Nicole Kidman’s stellar performance


Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Margaret stands at the painful core of the story. This mother of three, who left her architectural career to move across the world for her husband’s job, experiences profound grief after the loss of their youngest child, Gust. This loss plunges her into a state of shock, constantly haunted by the specter of loss, teetering on the edge of emotional collapse. Nevertheless, she finds some solace in her husband, Clarke (Brian Tee), and the luxurious surroundings that offer slight comfort amidst her pain. Her neighbor and close friend, Hilary Starr (Sarayu Blue), also lives in this privileged environment, though despite their household help, they can never become true family members.

Hilary’s situation is almost the opposite; she does not long for a child – perhaps due to issues related to infertility? – and battles the expectations forced upon her by her domineering mother (the excellent Sudha Bhuchar) and her unfaithful, alcohol-abusing husband, David (Jack Huston).

The trio’s third member, the significantly younger Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), is a rebellious but lonely 24-year-old Korean-American woman, fresh out of Columbia, seeking a fresh start though not fully aware of her own goals and identity. The tragedy that binds them also undermines the foundations of these fragile identities.

The relationships among the three women sometimes feel contrived, as if lifted directly from the pages of a novel – yet this is characteristic of the source material, hence not attributable to Wang or her writing team. “Expats” unfolds like a densely pulsating memory lane from the perspective of an individual struggling with ongoing trauma. The plot, centering around Kidman’s character, Margaret, begins a year after her child’s disappearance, then takes an unexpected turn back to the events of the second episode.



Tragedy Strikes


This episode reveals that Mercy, on the deck of a luxury cruise, accidentally meets Margaret and later applies for an au pair job, ultimately losing Gust at a Hong Kong night market during a sort of trial dinner. A brief moment of distraction, glancing at her phone, is enough for the boy to vanish without a trace. Following this, Margaret collapses, facing hysterical fits as her world crumbles around her. Meanwhile, Hilary’s husband, David, who lies about his whereabouts to the police because he was drinking, temporarily becomes a suspect. This realization fundamentally changes Hilary’s relationship with him, and “Expats” essentially takes us into that night when the disappearance of a young boy fundamentally alters every character’s life.

Wang’s directorial strength in “Expats” shines brightest when depicting its protagonists as individuals who have lost their place in the world, wandering through the bustling streets of Hong Kong, emotionally isolated, lonely, hoping to find connection with someone. With a keen eye for the inner lives of women and a skillful handling of contemplative, non-linear storytelling, Wang truly excels when “Expats” allows for emotional engagement with the audience, especially in its quieter scenes. Presenting the tragedy from three different perspectives, Wang skillfully intertwines the characters’ memories and experiences, creating a moving and compelling story.

The bittersweet, melancholic music of Alex Weston and the characteristic, dimly lit, atmospheric cinematography of Anna Franquesa-Solano perfectly capture the unique mood of Wong Kar-Wai and his loyal cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, fed by a sense of life and drenched in neon lights. A subplot even makes a direct reference to them, which might seem unnecessary, but is woven in so subtly that most will not notice.



The pace slows down…


As the story unfolds and “Expats” confronts a complex, multi-branched narrative, the previously lively mood occasionally shifts to a slower rhythm – unsurprisingly, given that the most compelling episodes are those penned by Wang herself.

The fifth episode, “Central,” is a special, 95-minute creation from Wang, presented almost like an independent film, and was introduced as such at the Toronto International Film Festival. This part is both impressive and controversial. Here, Wang draws attention to not only focusing on lifestyles surrounded by wealth and privilege but also recognizing the people who underpin this luxurious world. The household help and women from lower social strata, indispensable to the affluent’s daily life yet often hidden in their work and existence.

Margaret and Hilary’s household employees, Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla) – both delivering standout performances – as well as other characters on the story’s fringes, are given their own episodes. This segment articulates a bold critique of the complex situation of domestic workers, how personal and service boundaries blur, and the manipulations they may face by becoming emotionally involved in their employers’ lives – as if they were part of the family, while remaining in a subordinate role.



Complex relationship dynamics


For instance, Essie shares a complicated relationship with Margaret because her children essentially love her more, and Margaret resents this. Like many helpers in similar situations, she is akin to a grandmother or aunt but is not actually so. Puri spends a magical evening with Hilary – sad and lonely, missing her husband – where they are seen, acknowledged, and suddenly treated as friends. But when Hilary wakes up with a hangover, it becomes clear that the previous night’s sudden generosity was merely a byproduct of alcohol – a sharp reordering of power dynamics, like a harsh awakening. Ultimately, they are the help, and their employers only notice them when their own lives are in chaos or they are indulging in self-pity.

This episode is well-written, well-intentioned, and deeply unique, but undeniably, it represents a sudden detour from the main narrative, thus appearing self-serving as it does not advance the story. Rather, it serves as an interesting break, a turning point, and diversion. Despite highlighting power imbalances and how the main characters are shielded from real struggles, it unfortunately also casts the characters we are encouraged to empathize with in a deeply unfavorable light.

The episode underscores how these helpers set aside their own lives and families to care for others, highlighting the dreadful, selfish behavior of their employers. And while the fifth episode is excellent in its own right, it’s no surprise that this is the point where “Expats” begins to falter. Wang’s bold attempt to take this direction in the penultimate episode of the series is questionable as to whether it serves the foundation of the entire story, which asked for our empathy towards the situation of women. Arguably, this artistic diversion backfires regarding the overall impact of “Expats” (and the decision to give space to a few other scarcely known characters in the story seems questionable).



Bold Character Portrayal


“Expats” daringly presents its characters’ imperfect and less lovable sides, accurately reflecting the complexities of life where no one remains untouched or unblemished. This approach demands courage, even if it sometimes weakens the series itself. Wang deserves recognition for critically viewing the series’ central figures. Meanwhile, incorporating the 2014 Hong Kong events and the Umbrella Revolution into the story – which only plays a part in the fifth episode – raises questions; it seems the series introduces another serious theme but fails to handle it adequately. Wang’s ambition to showcase every facet of Hong Kong’s vibrant culture is commendable, yet her aim sometimes remains unclear.

The sixth episode, written by the original work’s author, Janice Y.K. Lee, and serving as the series’ concluding chapter, is unfortunately the least effective part, reinforcing the argument that Wang should have imprinted her signature more consistently throughout the series, instead of ending it in an uncertain tone. Lee’s writing, focusing on the motif of “female strength,” may not achieve the series’ loftier objectives.

Despite this, “Expats” is too compelling to simply overlook. The myriad branching storylines may occasionally overwhelm the narrative, but Wang’s ambition, style, grace, and cinematic empathy leave a lasting impression that is misty and dreamlike, reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai’s films, which clearly inspired her. This could be Wang’s own “My Blueberry Nights,” a rare WKW film that didn’t achieve universal acclaim among fans but is still considered a noteworthy work overall.

-Gergely Herpai (BadSector)-





Direction - 7.2
Actors - 7.6
Story - 7.2
Visuals/Music/Sounds - 7.5
Ambience - 7.2



"Expats" is a bold and complex series that unravels the depths of loneliness, grief, privilege, and womanhood through a richly woven story. Lulu Wang's directorial vision and the profound portrayal of the characters' inner worlds offer an engrossing journey for the viewer. While occasionally feeling overloaded and self-indulgent, the series still merits attention and understanding as it expands the viewers' empathy and perspective through the depiction of the characters' lives and struggles.

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BadSector is a seasoned journalist for more than twenty years. He communicates in English, Hungarian and French. He worked for several gaming magazines - including the Hungarian GameStar, where he worked 8 years as editor. (For our office address, email and phone number check out our impressum)

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