In the bathroom of a room, a woman sits on top of the lid of a closed toilet. Someone's feet on top of a bed is visible in the corner.

Lulu Wang’s ‘Expats’ is the best show on TV right now

The director’s follow up to ‘The Farewell’ is a sublime miniseries about loss

Mercy Cho (Ji-young Yoo) in "Expats."

Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios

In 2019, writer-director Lulu Wang stunned with The Farewell, her Awkwafina-led sophomore feature about a Chinese American writer returning to Changchun for the first time in decades. The same sense of loss and disorientation permeates Expats, her incredible limited series for Prime Video, which adapts the novel The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee. The difference however—made apparent by Expats’ title—is that while The Farewell dealt with the cultural displacement felt by Asian immigrants in the west, Wang’s six-part story centers the experiences of three American women from different backgrounds who have all settled in Hong Kong. The mechanics of their outsidership, and the privileges they hold, are vastly different, but these dynamics are made self-apparent for the most part in Expats, rather than being the central focus.

That’s because Expats is primarily a story of tragedy, and the way its three protagonists—Margaret Woo (Nicole Kidman), Mercy Cho (Ji-young Yoo) and Hilary Starr (Sarayu Blue)—are bound by a web of circumstance. However, in the corners of its frame (and throughout one episode in particular, which switches the narrative point of view), the series makes apparent the social and political backdrops in the characters’ peripheral vision, which they themselves often ignore. As much as their lives are steeped in loss, their misfortunes keep them culturally blinkered.

A woman sits in a bathtub, looking at her phone.

Margaret Woo (Nicole Kidman) deals with the aftermath of a mysterious family tragedy.

Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios

Concerns were raised when the production began in 2021, starting with Kidman skirting Hong Kong’s COVID restrictions, followed by the optics of using the country as a backdrop for a story of wealthy westerners, at a time of widespread crackdowns on dissent against China dismantling the country’s democracy. The government exemption granted to Kidman, on the flimsy grounds that her work was necessary for “the operation and development of Hong Kong’s economy,” was further criticized as opening the door to “soft propaganda” and government whitewashing, based on the way Lee’s 2016 novel largely avoids political entanglements. While the quarantine double standards certainly hold true, the finished series functions as a sort of mea culpa; Lee was heavily involved in the show’s writing, and expands its scope to include the 2014 Umbrella Movement against China interfering with Hong Kong’s electoral process. The show is hardly a political manifesto, but it takes advantage of the visual medium to frequently venture outside its protagonists’ limited purview in order to paint a picture of the world outside their peripheral vision. (Whether or not this transformation is radical enough, the series has been mysteriously unavailable for Hong Kong audiences, leading to speculation of censorious motives).

A woman sits together with a man in a kitchen, each holding a mug. The woman has her hand reached out to the man's face in an intimate, relaxed gesture.

Mercy Cho (Ji-young Yoo) struggles with guilt and identity as a Korean-American left adrift in Hong Kong.

Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios

The central plot of Expats is best discovered while watching its initial episodes—the first two of which were released on Jan. 26—because Wang impeccably unfurls its premise as though it were a mystery waiting to be discovered. The show’s abstract opening images take the form of postcards and portraits in motion, and are accompanied by voiceover from Mercy, a young Korean American Columbia graduate alone and adrift in Hong Kong, as she addresses someone unseen, in second person. She relays anecdotes of tragic events, coincidences, and victims of circumstance—a prologue reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s spiritual ensemble film Magnolia, an influence which recurs—before zeroing in on the oft-ignored perpetrators who set them in motion. Mercy believes herself to be one of these people, though what she’s guilty of isn’t immediately clear.

Elsewhere, rich American expatriate Margaret tries to plan a party for her husband Clarke (Brian Tee), who’s grown distant from her, while their two kids deal with the specter of some mysterious misfortune, to which we’re not yet privy. This sort of narrative dynamic, in which the characters are fully aware of facts and events, but speak in riddles and play things close to the chest in order to obscure them from the audience, has a tendency to be frustrating in other films and shows. However, in the first episode of Expats, Wang ensures that each bit of information is relayed first through mood before being made explicit. By the second episode, all the show’s puzzle pieces snap into place, but once they do, none of them feel like surprises. Given the way Wang captures her characters’ isolation, their confusion and despair, it feels as though we already know the answers to each question, deep in our bones, before we’re told them.

A woman sits looking off into the distance.

Hilary Starr (Sarayu Blue)

Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios

Like Margaret, her neighbor Hilary—an Indian American woman married to a white British man (Jack Huston)—has a similarly rocky marriage, albeit for vastly different reasons that continue to deepen with each episode. There’s a lingering tension between the two women, who live on adjacent floors of a lavish expat high rise, but a distinct feeling of history too. Their performances carry immense weight and meaning in every scene, and even though we seldom see the three leads interact beyond the first episode, their presence looms large in each other’s lives, as they become mirrors and echoes to one another.

On paper, the idea of three central characters who barely interact across six hours feels scatterbrained, but Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa-Solano bind the show’s fabric together with an alluring visual texture. Their vision of Hong Kong is multifaceted, from its hustle and bustle, to the secret lives of its Filipino workforce, to the self-crafted cocoons of its one-percent—local and expatriate alike—to crowded streets and buildings awash in the afterglow of rain.

Expats is told through the vast silences and held breaths between words, a dynamic which works in beautiful, painful ways in the show’s penultimate episode.

The series’ palette draws distinctly from Hong Kong arthouse virtuoso Wong Kar-wai, whose 1994 film Chunking Express Wang has cited as a favorite—one background conversation even name checks Wong and his frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Christopher Doyle—but as the show goes on, it finds its own sense of rhythm and expression. While much of The Farewell was about the use of language, Expats is told through the vast silences and held breaths between words, a dynamic which works in beautiful, painful ways in the show’s penultimate episode, which tells the story from the point of view of Margaret and Hilary’s Filipina household helpers, Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla), who lead a stellar supporting cast that helps round out the city’s socio-economic fabric.  

Two women stand together in a crowded room.

Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla)

Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios

Wang’s use of image and sound is exceptional. Her wordless tableaus, which move and evolve, and are scored by Hong Kong’s hum and chatter, become little worlds of their own, thanks in no small part to the performances she directs. Kidman, who accesses some of the most agonizing parts of her psyche, has never been better; Blue, a career supporting actress, finally gets her due as a layered, complicated lead, in a performance unafraid to be both vulnerable and grating; and Yoo, who stunned in last year’s (still undistributed) Tribeca hit Smoking Tigers, performs with a stunning level of physical commitment, in a role that demands hiding and displaying the worst parts of oneself in equal measure.

Six episodes is far too short for a series this remarkable. And yet, in the limited time it has, Expats feels as though it spans entire lifetimes, given how vividly its characters are expressed through posture and performance, and the ways in which their hidden depths revealed, in reflective silence, by Wang’s gentle but unyielding lens, as she explores their fragile relationship to Hong Kong, and to themselves.

The fifth episode of Expats releases on Feb. 16 on Prime Video, followed by its finale on Feb. 23.

Published on February 16, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter