A missing child has been at the centre of so many thrillers in recent years it’s difficult not to expect Expats to fall into the same old patterns. But while there are superficial similarities – the series is built around three women with their fair share of secrets and angst – this isn’t that kind of mystery. There’s plenty here to like and admire, but it’s more about the workings of the human heart than of child trafficking schemes.
To be fair, the structure of the series (directed by Lulu Wang and based on the novel by Janice Y.K. Lee) works hard to defuse any expectations of a traditional whodunnit. For starters, the first episode takes place a year after the disappearance of Gus, son of Clarke Woo (Brian Tee) and his wife Margaret (Nicole Kidman), in a market in Hong Kong.
The wounds are clearly still raw; there’s a number of scenes where what’s not being said is so obvious there’s practically a child-sized outline left in the air. But while nobody thinks the 50th birthday party Margaret is now putting together for her husband is a good idea, it’s important to move forward, one step at a time.
The loss of Gus has left Margaret unmoored, barely keeping it together for the sake of their other children. When she does try to connect with her neighbour, fellow expat and former best friend Hilary (Sarayu Blue), the results are awkward at best.
Hilary has problems of her own, with her marriage to David (Jack Huston) falling apart. David seems happy to let it all blow away, but Hilary is determined to keep things going – just as she’s driven to try and heal the breach between her and Margaret by showing up to the party no matter what.
As for Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), she provides the ominous voice-over that kicks off the series, talking about wanting to understand how people who cause serious accidents can survive with the guilt. Whatever the cause of her remorse (and an emotional near-confrontation with Margaret at the party makes the broad strokes pretty obvious), it’s tainted her life.
Drifting between dead end jobs, using her Korean background to avoid connection – even with her current lover, who also ties her back to Margaret and Hilary – her self-imposed isolation hasn’t prevented her from being as wounded as the others.
Later episodes shift back in time (the first episode turns out to be a flash-forward of sorts), though we don’t really need the extended backstory. While it’s interesting to see who the characters were before the central tragedy tore apart their lives, pre-empting some of the story’s big moments drains them of drama, while the more linear storytelling makes this feel more traditional than what the opening episode promised.
But possibly those shifts in focus are the point. The penultimate, movie-length episode brings a trio of supporting characters to the fore, broadening the scope of the series to cover other lives and other issues. They provide some new insights into our central characters, but they’re also intriguing in their own right.
The best moments in Expats can feel like they’re coming from two different series. There’s a number of powerful scenes where slow burning tensions – or just a desire to connect – between two characters come to a head, paying off lengthy build-ups and giving the talented cast something real to grab onto. But they’re less common than they should be.
The other side of Expats is that cliché of the city being a central character. Fans of Hong Kong cinema will recognise some of the moments used here (who doesn’t start singing in a near empty street level café late at night?), but the focus on the city itself pays off once the storylines start to engage more with those around the central trio. We often see Mercy just walking the crowded streets; narratively the scenes add little, but they tap into the city’s energy in a way that works well
The three leads bring plenty to their roles. Blue gives Hilary a drive that doesn’t quite hide the fact she’s always holding something back, while Yoo underplays Mercy’s refusal to free herself from guilt, making it an undercurrent of sadness rather than a defining note.
It’s Kidman who gets the big scenes as a woman made brittle by tragedy. She’s on a knife edge early on, and even the (rare) scenes of healing that follow never quite erase that fragility she carries under the surface. It’s the kind of thing Kidman does well, and it’s a showy role for her.
Here the idea of being an expatriate is hardly subtext; the series touches on the many concrete ways the trio’s lives are shaped by living in a city they’ve come to as adults. But tragedy has also made Margaret a stranger to herself. She’s trying to find a way to build a life when tragedy has made everything around her strange and new.
Expats premieres on Prime Video on 26 January.