A showcase of Asian talent, from Brian Tee to Ruby Ruiz, Expats is a dramatic and intriguing series that examines how the lives of three women in Hong Kong are interconnected through the devastation of one singular event. Margaret (Nicole Kidman) is a housewife suffering through an initially undisclosed tragedy that has ruptured her family’s stability and happiness. She ambles her way through day-to-day activities hoping to find the spark that will get her back on track. Meanwhile, her neighbour and friend Hilary’s (Sarayu Blue) marriage is also falling apart. The final piece of the puzzle is Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a lost postgrad trying to find herself in the bustling streets of the city. The narrative that follows takes place against the backdrop of the 79-day protests in 2014 Hong Kong.
Expats oscillates between past and present, exploring everything that led up to the incident and the consequences thereafter. In the first few episodes, the omnipresence of what happened drums up tension in every scene; it’s a looming shadow that haunts every individual’s movement and their current circumstance in life. This is heightened by the continuous whispers and gossip that surround Margaret and Hilary. As part of the wealthy community of expats in Hong Kong, the two are constantly in the vicinity of scandalous rumours and unfounded speculation. Mercy is removed from all of that, and it’s made clear even from the very first few lines that she’s the outlier that catalysed the series of unfortunate events. In her narration, she explains: “I want to know about the people who cause tragedies. People like me. Are they ever forgiven? Do they ever move on?”
Kidman’s performance attempts to differentiate Margaret from before and after with ticks and mannerisms that indicate the anxiety and desperation of someone whose child is missing. However, her passive presentation of the character contrasts against Yoo’s explosive and daring exploration of Mercy. The young actress is a standout in Expats: she shows that while Mercy is reckless and brave, there’s a deep loneliness inside of her that is only further exacerbated by befriending Margaret and her children. Mercy’s story is the most compelling of the three, and Yoo imbues her with a dauntless and enigmatic charm.
The series’ production decisions heavily rely on mystery, such as slow camera turns and favouring tracking shots that follow from behind. These combined with dim lighting and exaggerated use of shadows emphasise the idea of hidden figures and the unknown. Centre framing and reflective shots against mirrors and shiny surfaces create the illusion of symmetry and enhance the feeling of discomfort and scrutiny. These stylistic visuals lay the framework for the thrill and curiosity to permeate. However, they don’t always add greatly to the narrative or character development.
Based on the novel by Janice Y K Lee, Expats already has a strong foundation to build from, so some of the additional flourishes in the production and script do border on unnecessary. The most intriguing aspects of the show are those that provide moral introspection on guilt, selfishness and the ethics of nanny culture in Asian countries. These topics, sprinkled throughout the first two episodes, offer a glimpse into Expats as something more substantial than a drama of twists and turns. But for audiences watching this on a weekly basis, only time will tell.
Expats is released on Prime Video on 26th January 2024.
Watch the trailer for Expats here: