First looks: Expats explores the not-so-simple life of working abroad

Hong Kong is the perfect backdrop for tales of loneliness and the complexities of human relationships.

by Justin Choo

Just for the visuals alone, Expats is a gorgeous piece of work. In a way, it feels like a Westerner’s romanticised view of Hong Kong’s cityscapes, a la a tribute to Chungking Express, but as the minutes tick by, it’s clear that Director Lulu Wang’s aesthetic is her own. And so is her take on Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates; executive producer Nicole Kidman in fact, gave the director of Posthumous and The Farewell carte blanche to shape Expats in her own vision.

Expats revolves around three expatriates with very different lives and how their lives are intertwined. Margaret (Nicole Kidman) gives up a successful career as a landscape architect to follow her husband Clarke (Brian Tee) to Hong Kong to care for the family. He’s enjoying it a lot more than she is, and she longs to return to the life she gave up.

Margaret bonds with her neighbour Hilary (Sarayu Blue), following a family tragedy, and Hilary is the only person Margaret can turn to in her darkest moments. However, all’s not right for camp Hilary as her marriage is on the rocks. Her husband David (Jack Huston) wants children; she, a successful businesswoman, does not. He too, has problems of his own — he’s a recovering alcoholic, for one — and they start to drift apart. The two women are trapped by their roles; one accepts it and regrets it, while the other denies it at the expense of her marriage. They also represent the stereotypical image of the expat: well-to-do, powerful or with plenty of time on their hands, and ‘malding’ over first-world problems.

The third player in this act is Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), whose standing in society is far removed from the other two. Mercy works odd jobs to stay afloat and has trouble fitting in with her friends of a higher social standing. She has a chip on her shoulder and is convinced that her absent career is down to bad luck. While Mercy has escaped her circumstances by coming to Hong Kong, she learns the harsh reality that she simply has to make better choices in life.

Let’s not forget that domestic helpers are expatriates as well. In this case, Margaret’s and Hilary’s— Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla) are integral pillars in their respective families lives, yet they flit in the background, like familial expatriates, demonstrating their diminished status: Essie plays the grandmother role to Margaret’s children, while Puri is almost like a go-between for the estranged Hilary and David. 

The word, expat, and the associated lifestyle aren’t quite dyed in the wool like they used to be. Conventional social narrative pegs the noun to the good life, despite its rather broad definition. While Expats is driven primarily by the complex relationship between the three women, for the first two episodes at least, the show also hints at the ‘social classes’ and the intricate social dynamics amongst those who have uprooted themselves to a foreign land to make a living.

Though of different social circles, Mercy’s life will intertwine with Margaret and Hilary’s amidst tragedy and happenstance; perhaps they are bonded by traumatic events, or perhaps everyone is united by a great equaliser — the loneliness of being a stranger in a foreign land. What hits close to home is that our heroines in Expats have been thrust into societal roles and are facing the effects of those pressures and the consequences of their compromises.

While it’s true that you don’t have to go abroad to deal with the troubles these women face, the difference is that for an expatriate, your emotional support system is not a given. It’s easy to dismiss this as a privileged problem, but I suppose that’s why Mercy, Essie and Puri are there to remind us that not all expatriates are created equal, and that they have to ‘make do’ with each other — because they have no one else to turn to.

It’s pretty striking that nobody on the outside understands what our three protagonists are going through. And when you consider the backdrop of an idyllic, pre-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong, perhaps this is merely foreshadowing the promise of the emotional rollercoaster to come.

Expats is now showing on Prime Video with new episodes dropping weekly.