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‘Expats’ Review: Nicole Kidman Headlines Ambitious, Shrewd Portrait of Alienation in Hong Kong

In the fifth episode of “Expats,” the Prime Video limited series from writer and director Lulu Wang, the show at once zooms in and scales back. The sprawling, ambitious penultimate installment of the series is a 97-minute doozy that, in a show that is already remarkably cinematic throughout, deviates partly to become its own sort of standalone film. Whereas the series has been circulating around the trauma, tragedies, and foils of a collection of wealthy expatriates living in Hong Kong, this episode frequently shifts the camera to the periphery: to the workers that serve them; to the political protests circa 2014; to the varied lives and textures that make up the city.

It is, in other words, a concentration of the show at its best — as much a rich, evocative tableau of Hong Kong, in all its complications and contradictions, as it is a study in grief and disconnection. In Wang’s steady hands, the city is a place of stark highs and lows: the upstairs and the downstairs of the global elite and their help; neon grit and gleaming high-rises; an electrified utopia and a metropolis swollen with ennui.

Up until this penultimate episode, the series has focused, primarily, on a trio of women: Margaret (Nicole Kidman), a wealthy, unmoored white American woman and mother of three; Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a young Korean American who soon after meeting her loses one of Margaret’s children in a night market; and Hillary (Sarayu Blue), Margaret’s friend and neighbor whose husband (Jack Huston) is having an affair with Mercy. The central tragedy of Margaret’s lost child ties them together and is a good, if almost perfunctory, recipe for a prestige drama (although Kidman and Brian Tee, who plays Margaret’s husband, Clarke, are a knockout pair, igniting their characters with a nuanced anguish).

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Brian Tee and Nicole Kidman in “Expats.” (Prime Video)

But that stunted grief — much to the dismay of Clarke and their children, Margaret still believes their son is alive and continues to obsessively search for him a year after he disappeared — is one facet to the story’s larger preoccupation with a greater, abstract sense of dislocation and disconnection that hangs over these people’s lives, like the smog over the city.

“I’m cursed,” Mercy declares over and over again, a notion that her Hong Kong friend eventually tells her is just a convenient excuse for a privileged American tourist’s screw-ups. Beneath the gilded surfaces, these characters’ lives are an endless, at times self-imposed maze. Home is a hazy idea; the city drowns that truth out — and turns it up. Here, these expats have become foreigners to their own lives.

It’s a superbly written drama that often plumbs this alienation and trauma with a sharp auteur’s eye under Wang (who wrote and directed the film “The Farewell”). But its greater achievement rests in that fifth episode — which partly centers on Margaret and Hillary’s so-called “helpers,” along with the student protesters that formed the Umbrella Movement in 2014, responding to China’s encroaching rule over Hong Kong — and how it folds the show’s concerns into its refocused perspective to get at something far shrewder.

On paper, the episode can be seen as a kind of corrective to making a show about the wealthy elite in a time when the political fate of the actual population, the non-elites, of Hong Kong is more dubious than ever. But Wang, who directs all of the episodes and writes some of them, is not so unimaginative that she’d simply step away for one episode to “humanize” the underclass. Instead, the perspective shift makes for a class interrogation that is more quietly revelatory than the vast majority of shows and films within the recent rush of eat-the-rich programming.

At the start of the episode, a crowd of Filipino women, all “helpers” to wealthy families, gather together to gossip and play bingo on their day off. “Don’t be stupid. She’s not your friend,” a friend tells Puri, Hillary’s helper, about her relationship to Hillary. Another adds, “You can’t get too close. We know everything about these people, things their closest friends don’t even know.” It almost sounds like a contradiction, but instead, it embodies the class tension that forms a sort of complex economy of alienation in Hong Kong.

By the end of the episode, Margaret and Hillary each find themselves in deeply vulnerable moments with Essie and Puri, respectively. “You’re a good friend,” Hillary tells Puri. “You’re family,” Margaret tells Essie. But what the devastating ending to the episode — which is elevated by the subtle heartbreak in Pardenilla and Ruiz’s magnificent performances — reveals is this pseudo-bond that people like Margaret and Hillary create for themselves: to see their help as family, not only out of a sense of class guilt, but also because of the convenience that it brings them. Life is traumatic and confusing, but here, they can pay for comfort without the nuisance — for the veneer of connection without the human messiness that makes up actual relationships and real life.

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A still from “Expats.” (Prime Video

In “Expats,” the city is full of these lies and dissonances. But these expats ultimately cannot pay truth and trauma out of view — as far as they travel, they cannot escape their own lives.

Episode 5 also observes another side character, Hillary’s friend, a wealthy woman raising two children while in an unhappy marriage. Feeling helplessly alone during a storm that forms the backdrop of the entire episode, she calls her mother for help. “We’re all alone,” her mother tells her curtly. She hangs up the phone and seems to decide to run away from everything, another expat in the show’s constellation of them. While packing up her things she notices that the leak in the ceiling of her mansion is bursting with water amid the raging typhoon. She returns to packing, but then, she unrolls a trash bag, steps up a ladder, and crudely patches up the ceiling. She stops packing.

“Expats” premieres Friday, Jan. 26, on Prime Video.

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