TV shows

‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’ is ‘beyond feminism, it’s ovarian, know what I mean?’

In the second season of Jane Campion’s landmark television show, the body of an Asian woman is found at Bondi Beach.

“I want it to go for six hours, and I want it to be about a group of postmenopausal women. Unfuckables,” said Jane Campion of her vision for the television show Top of the Lake.

In the first episode of its second season, a turquoise suitcase containing a woman’s body washes up on the shore of Bondi Beach, pulled out of the water by a lifeguard too late to save her. A fragile-looking, almost birdlike female detective with iceberg-blue eyes pries open the case and sees its gruesome contents. True to Campion’s original vision, Top of the Lake: China Girl dwells resolutely in the land of the unfuckable.

Co-written by frequent collaborator Gerard Lee and co-directed by Ariel Kleiman, Top of the Lake: China Girl is set four-ish years after season one’s Queenstown paedophile-ring bust. A few weeks after an aborted marriage, the singular Elizabeth Moss is back as Detective Robin Griffin (now a Detective Senior Constable). She has returned to Sydney to reconnect with the daughter she gave up for adoption and get her life back on track by training new police recruits on the Walsh Bay wharf.

Play
Top of the Lake: China Girl.

Taking on the risky business of migrant sex work, Campion has spoken of basing the new series on extensive research conducted in a stretch of brothels in the south-eastern Sydney suburb of Mascot. “Silk 41”, the fictional centrepoint for much of the series’ drama, functions as a red-lit replica of the establishments Campion has reported frequenting.

A sassy Prada-wearing escort serves, perhaps, to include the perspectives of the sex workers in the advocacy group Scarlet Alliance who also worked with Campion in an advisory capacity. These moments of meta-fiction, though sometimes a little clumsily integrated, highlight Campion’s intent in not only making good use of her vast research, but also acknowledging and respecting voices so often ignored.

Campion sets herself apart from the run of the mill crime drama tropes by de-eroticising Cinnamon, the “shop name” of the woman found in the suitcase, whose image and life are interrogated throughout the series. Cinnamon’s waterlogged body is shown decomposing and distorted beyond recognition, an honest depiction reminiscent of Lynda La Plante’s landmark crime drama series Prime Suspect.

Though there have been critics who feel Campion’s signposting of feminist issues is heavy-handed, in a Q & A after the Sydney premiere of the show’s first two episodes, Campion declared: “China Girl is beyond feminism … it’s ovarian, know what I mean?”

Indeed everything is focused around pregnancies, even morgue scenes. As Robin (Moss) and the coroner, Ray (Geoff Morrell), dig around in the body of Cinnamon to discover a tiny male foetus that turns out to be an irregular DNA surrogate implant, Campion is not-so-subtlety reminding us that not all sex-work takes place in a brothel.

Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin. Image credit: See-Saw Films.
Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin. Image credit: See-Saw Films.

After the suitcase discovery, Robin is teamed up with rookie cop Miranda (played by Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame), who serves as an open and very enthusiastic offset to Robin’s stand-offishness. Moss and Christie play off each other wonderfully, as do Alice Englert and Nicole Kidman, who play Robin’s daughter Mary, and her adoptive mother Julie, who Campion has described as “a suburban queen; a control freak brought to her knees.”

Mary and Julie clash – horribly – and in a typical adolescent act of rebellion Mary brings home series villain Puss (David Dencik), a brothel owner and faux-intellectual more than 20 years her senior.

Puss (soft spoken and aptly named) waxes lyrical about feminism and quotes Dostoevsky whilst toting a copy of the Socialist Alternative rag Red Flag and lighting a skinny, half-smoked cigarette. Living above Silk 41, he claims to be a product of rape, similar to Mary. He seems aloof from the violence and death surrounding him, yet there is something infuriatingly condescending about his gap-toothed smile when he faces off against Julia in a disastrous dinner scene.

He’s an insidious version of the other machismo collective of the series, a cafe-bound ring of men who run “Hooker Rater,” a fairly self-explanatory porn website. The show’s redeeming male presence is, however, Mary’s adoring adoptive father, Pyke (played by Dead Europe’s Ewen Leslie), who functions as a welcome lynchpin for much of the drama’s underlying tensions. Apart from Pyke, it would be difficult to find any character in the series who isn’t inherently flawed or unlikeable. Likeable simply isn’t Campion’s shtick.

David Dencik as Puss. Image credit: See-Saw Films.
David Dencik as Puss. Image credit: See-Saw Films.

The somehow ominous visual beauty of Top of the Lake: China Girl is truly something to behold. Harking back to her earlier work (in films like In the Cut and The Piano), poetic images – a burning wedding dress held above a bonfire by two cackling men on a ute, a suitcase drifting peacefully across the sea floor – are poised against gorgeous vistas: New Zealand mountain ranges or a Sydney seascape.

There is definitely a sense of Campion being more adventurous in this second season, in both the defiant subject matter and images that crystallise it. In one dream sequence, for instance, fluorescent babies surround a chuckling Robin before she is shown thrashing and screaming in her sleep.

The wide-angle shots of Walsh Bay as police jog by in lapis uniforms – in a rippling reflection of the surrounding sea – offset what would otherwise be an over-reliance on mid-shot interior dialogue scenes, which threaten to turn the series into a boring police procedural. (I’m looking at you The Fall.)

The red-lit group scenes shot at Silk 41 are catapulted straight out of Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy, all arms and freshly-shaved legs jumbled and draped in a sleepy, feminine sculpture. Piano filters through the series elegantly, turning the otherwise abject image of the submerged suitcase containing a dead body into an astonishingly elegant ballet of oceanic wilderness.

This being said – not all experimentations pay off. A dubious film-within-a-film, meta-fictional subplot to set up an end-of-series reveal about South-East Asian surrogacy is an unconvincing dalliance that probably could have been left on the cutting room floor.

At a recent talk on Top of the Lake at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Lee admitted: “There isn’t a lot of [real] police work that happens [in the show], instead things are solved by someone simply calling and leaving a tip.” This rather convenient occurrence does lead to slight plot inconsistencies and stretch one’s suspension of disbelief at points too far. Lee and Campion, preferring to focus on microagressions, gender politics and interpersonal relationships in lieu of detailing crime drama’s usual nitty-gritty police work, do endanger the series’ otherwise watertight persuasiveness.

This ambiguous relationship to convention however, has not so much dogged as inspired much of Campion’s career, as the tensions of sexual and racial politics have been channelled through her mythical personal vision.

Blythe Worthy, PhD Candidate, The University of Sydney, University of Sydney.

This article first appeared on The conversation.

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.