"Expats": A gripping drama series set in Hong Kong

  • young woman in Hong Kong
Published on 2024-05-03 at 10:00 by Estelle
In early 2024, the Prime Video streaming platform debuted “Expats", a drama series based on the book by Janice Y. K. Lee. It portrays the lives of three women from diverse backgrounds who are linked by a singular drama: Margaret, Hilary, and Mercy, each facing unexpected and traumatic events that upheave their existences.

Spanning six episodes, the series delicately handles themes like friendship, family, mourning, betrayal, guilt, and identity. It offers a poignant and authentic portrayal of individual journeys from the affluent expatriate families to the ordinary ranks, set in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong.

A remarkable casting and production

Directed by Lulu Wang, the production establishes an immersive and delicate atmosphere, enhancing the emotional complexity of the characters and revealing the diverse facets of Hong Kong during the 2014 student demonstrations (known as the Umbrella Movement). These events ignited debates and shocked some senior politicians in Hong Kong. It's worth noting that the series is not available in Hong Kong.

The casting is meticulous, with "Expats" highlighted by the nuanced performances of its lead actresses. Nicole Kidman stars as Margaret, a New Yorker who relocates overseas with her family, struggling with tragedy and caught in a mix of anticipation, hope, and denial. Sarayu Blue adds depth to the role of Hilary, Margaret's friend and neighbor. Ji-young Yoo portrays Mercy, a young American of Korean descent burdened with guilt and believed to be jinxed.

A story without judgment or morality

Far from offering a black-and-white view of life, the series explores the shades of pain and recovery. Each character, with their flaws and strengths, contributes to a narrative where personal suffering is interwoven with that of others. Lulu Wang avoids simple judgments, inviting viewers to comprehend the complexity of human relationships and individual decisions. This approach allows the series, over its six episodes, to stand out from typical narratives, providing a deep exploration of human experiences without attempting to deliver definitive life lessons.

How expat life is portrayed and its reflection of reality

Although titled "Expats", the series isn't just about expat life and isn't aimed solely at expatriates. While expat life forms a significant backdrop, the focus primarily lies on the deep, personal stories connecting these three women and their life experiences. The series resonates with a broad audience, touching on more profound issues than just the superficial elements of expatriate life.

However, following the series' release, there was some debate within the expatriate community about whether "Expats" genuinely represents the lives of foreigners in Hong Kong. While some find similarities with their experiences on the island, others perceive it as caricatural, arguing that the lavish lifestyles of Hilary and Margaret are not reflective of everyone's reality. Although the city offers some of the world's highest salaries and best quality of life for foreign nationals, not everyone enjoys such luxuries.

In 2023, it was reported that expatriates were leaving Hong Kong in large numbers for other countries, due to stringent pandemic measures, the National Security Law, slow economic recovery, and recent geopolitical tensions. These are facts not addressed in the series, as it is set in 2014. Whether the series might encourage foreigners to consider moving to Hong Kong remains a complex question, depending on one's perspective.

Hong Kong filmed superbly

The series captures Hong Kong splendidly, showcasing everything from its narrow alleys and bustling markets to its glowing night-time cityscape. The visual contrast is stark between the lavish, secure, modern residences and the more modest, damp apartments.

Why watch the series?

If you are contemplating moving to or simply visiting Hong Kong, this series could be an excellent source of inspiration, particularly for its visual portrayal and insight into the interactions between expatriates and their domestic staff. Existing expatriates might enjoy seeing their host city represented on screen, rediscovering places and exploring aspects of Hong Kong that they might not know well, and reflecting on historical events like the 2014 protests. Although some may find the portrayal not entirely accurate, it serves as a primer for what might be expected or to explore other lifestyles, such as those of domestic workers from the Philippines. The luxurious lives of characters like Margaret and Hilary might also inspire some to aspire to such a lifestyle in Hong Kong, which continues to rank among the top five cities globally for expatriate salaries and social benefits.