At first, Lulu Wang had given up on working on Expatsthe adaptation of the 2016 novel by Janice YK Lee about a group of expats living in Hong Kong.
While Wang was promoting his 2019 film A good lie, Nicole Kidman contacted her to ask her to direct some or all of the episodes of the Amazon series on which she was working as producer and protagonist. Expats centers on the stories of three women living in Hong Kong but from other parts of the world and the devastating tragedy that unites them.
Wang, who had long been interested in Hong Kong, read the book and immediately loved it. Her family moved to the United States from Beijing in 1989, at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, and she has relatives and friends who have gone to live in Hong Kong. «I saw the parallels between the political movement in Hong Kong and what had happened when I was six years old and that I had seen with my own eyes. So I have always felt connected and at the same time distant”, she tells Vanity Fair.
But portraying the city itself was a particular challenge. “Hong Kong is a very culturally and politically sensitive place and I felt a responsibility to somehow capture its essence,” she says. “But not being from Hong Kong, I also wondered about my limits.”
At the time, he felt that the only way to tell the story well would be to tackle the adaptation from the ground up, and so Wang passed the buck. Kidman and Amazon were looking for a director, but Wang’s request to be more involved ultimately tipped the scales her way. “She called me back 24 or 48 hours later and said, ‘OK, it’s yours,'” Wang recalls. “At that point I could no longer refuse.”
Wang would undertake a difficult creative journey to tell the story of not only the wealthy expatriates living in Hong Kong, but also the immigrants who come to the city to work as domestic workers. The six episodes of the miniseries have become the tool to explore the meaning of being a mother, a woman and an immigrant. Wang represented the privilege of theexpatriate, against the backdrop of 2014 Hong Kong, the year pro-democracy protests erupted, considered a turning point for the region. To tell her story in her way, the director had to bear the brunt of the controversies surrounding filming in Hong Kong.
To the Toronto International Film Festival, Wang will present the fifth episode of the series as an absolute exclusive. It’s the first time that Expats is shown in public. The episode in question, entitled Central, lasts 96 minutes – the time of a film rather than a television episode – and focuses on the often invisible world of domestic workers. «I was tense and nervous, worried about how I would be able to portray Hong Kong. I wanted to make sure that you could feel my hand, see my reading, that you understood that I wanted to examine and not just pander to,” Wang tells Vanity Fair in the first interview he gives about the series. «How can you stay in that world without celebrating it, but also without judging it?».
Lee’s novel revolves around three women: Margaret, an American mother of three children, paralyzed by guilt after the disappearance of her youngest son; Mercy, a young Korean American who takes the blame for the boy’s disappearance; and Hilary, Margaret’s neighbor, whose marriage is at a standstill due to Margaret’s difficulty getting pregnant with her. «The novel incredibly illustrates the different perspectives and shows how complicated a situation is. There is guilt and blame, but also grace and forgiveness,” Wang says.
Kidman, who optioned the book through her production company Blossom Films, plays Margaret. “She has a certain leniency with the character and why she behaves the way she does,” Wang says of Kidman’s performance. In the cast, a discovery by Wang, Ji-young Yoo, who plays Mercy. “As soon as I saw her, I knew she was the one,” Wang recalls. «Mercy brings with her a whole darkness… That generational trauma that is very present in Asian-American culture. I wanted her to have that self-critical darkness that, even if only externally, still allows her to present herself as a girl of only twenty who is having fun.” As Hilary, Wang wanted someone who could bring some levity to the series, but she also considered that by casting the American Indian Sarayu Bluecould have represented the large Indian population of Hong Kong, often overlooked in film and television works.
In Central, however, Wang takes the story beyond the three main protagonists, allowing the viewer to follow Essie, Margaret’s Filipino nanny, even outside the house where she works. Played by Ruby Ruiz, Essie is the “heart and soul” of the story, a warm caregiver devastated by the disappearance of Margaret’s son. Puri, Hilary’s “helper”, as rich expats call her, is played by Amelyn Pardenillaan established Hong Kong singer who makes her debut in front of the camera in Expats.
Central talks about these women, who live at their employers’ homes, portraying them on their day off, Sunday, when they meet in a park to exchange information and gossip, an event that Wang witnessed when he was in Hong Kong for research about the series. “When I saw them for the first time, I was speechless,” she says. «Hundreds and thousands of women, an incredible sense of community. But they are also there because they have nowhere else to go.”
Wang felt that capturing their world – they too, after all, are expatriates – was the best way to create a contrast with the lives of the privileged women protagonists of the series. “In order to show that the expat world is a bubble, I had to break out of that bubble and give it context,” Wang says.
When Wang proposed her version of the series to Amazon, she started with the idea for the fifth episode, to make sure that her vision was truly shared. «It has to be a feature film and it has to be shot differently. For this episode I need the time and space of an independent feature film,” she said, adding that Kidman’s character in that episode would be more or less in the background. «I actually wanted to be a little rebellious to see how they would react. I looked at Nicole and she said, “We really like it. Is not it fantastic?”. So the studio thought: ‘Does Nicole like it? Well, then here we go.'”
Wang, who co-wrote the series with five other women, also lobbied for it Expats was actually filmed in Hong Kong, despite the logistical difficulties. “One of the reasons why I shot the series was to be able to immortalize Hong Kong and its great changes, giving it more visibility in the world,” says Wang, who, together with some members of his team, spent more than 50 days in quarantine due to the strict restrictions imposed for Covid (which have since been abolished).
During filming, the production was criticized for focusing on a wealthy minority in Hong Kong, as political tensions in the city rise, and mainland China exerts increasing control. “The criticism was really painful because I was also trying to show the political aspect,” says Wang, who includes the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests in the series. “It was a topic that I was passionate about and that I wanted to talk about.”
When the pressure became unbearable, Wang called her mother in tears. “Just as I was afraid of doing something wrong, I was also afraid of doing it right, because it’s a very delicate topic,” says Wang. “If you do things the way you have to and deal with it scrupulously, you inevitably also make a lot of people angry and this is something I still carry with me.”
Wang hopes that when Expats debuting in Toronto – and arriving on Amazon in early 2024 – the series speaks for itself, portraying women from different walks of life and a city that is facing enormous change. «Art is always political», she says, «and therefore my silence will also be political».
Source: Vanity Fair
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