Review by Sean Boelman
Lulu Wang established herself quickly when her feature debut, The Farewell, was released, and cinephiles have eagerly been awaiting her follow-up. Wang’s miniseries Expats is maybe one of the most impressive feats in any recent series — thanks to incredible direction and nuanced writing that takes a story that could have easily been melodramatic and turns it into something more profound.
Set in the community of expatriates living in Hong Kong, Expats tells the interconnecting stories of a group of women tied together by a devastating tragedy. Based on a novel by Janice Y. K. Lee, the show is in many ways a melodrama, but there’s such a deep and unexpected humanity that oozes through it, allowing it to avoid histrionics.
For much of the first two episodes, it can be hard to see where the story is going, but when the pieces fall into place around the end of the second episode, it’s astounding. Everything really comes together in the penultimate episode, which is one of the biggest swings a series has made in recent history, and it mostly pulls it off.
Knowing the world in which Expats is set, one is constantly waiting for the show to become more political. There are definitely some hints of a deeper message — particularly in the fifth episode, which is predominantly set from the perspective of the Filipina servants of this upper-class enclave of society — but the writers seem more interested in the intimate human drama than the bigger societal implications.
The show’s complexity arises from its characters, who are tremendously complicated individuals. Several of the characters do things that would generally make them unlikeable, and others would typically be seen as pitiable, but Wang’s eye on these people is refreshingly unique. Wang challenges the audience to understand our sympathies in an entirely different way, asking us to consider whether our judgments are fair.
Expats is built around three main performances: Nicole Kidman, Sarayu Blue, and Ji-young Yoo. Kidman’s performance is incredible, with as much nuance as any she has given in her career. However, Yoo steals the show, holding her own with a turn that starts mostly unfussily but explodes into something much bigger in the final third.
From an aesthetic level, the show is fantastic. The cinematography by Anna Franquesa-Solano is nothing short of beautiful. However, the series is also elevated by some ambitious directorial flourishes, including some stylistic bookends that are absolutely breathtaking.
Expats is a wonderfully nuanced exploration of its story, even if it feels like things wrap up a bit too cleanly. With this, Lulu Wang has cemented herself as one of the best new filmmakers working today, with an excellent ability to craft an emotional story.
Expats streams on Prime Video with two episodes on January 26, with new episodes dropping weekly. All six episodes reviewed.