The Strange Confusion of Top of the Lake: China Girl

Elisabeth Moss, Nicole Kidman, and Gwendoline Christie star in a returning series gone very wrong.

Robin (Elisabeth Moss) and Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) investigate a murder in 'Top of the Lake: China Girl'
Sundance TV

Strange things can happen when television shows move from one locale to another. The languid moodiness of True Detective’s first season, mired in the mystic culture and history of rural Louisiana, looked more like lumpy, peyote-swigging fan fiction when the show was rebooted in exurban California a year later. Even a simple production change can make a difference: The X-Files, transplanted from filming in dreary Vancouver to sunny Los Angeles in its sixth season, suddenly saw all the myriad possibilities of alien comedy and adjusted its tone accordingly.

Top of the Lake, the 2013 miniseries by Jane Campion about a female detective (Elisabeth Moss) investigating a missing, pregnant 12-year-old, was set in the fictional remote town of Laketop, New Zealand, and much of the series’s power came from its bleak, otherworldly landscape. The vast mountains looming over yellow fields put the eerie, even surreal behavior of Laketop’s inhabitants in the right kind of frame. When a show is so anchored by its topography, it’s hard to imagine what it might look like elsewhere—picture Twin Peaks set in Panama City, or The Killing in San Diego.

But that’s about what happened with Top of the Lake: China Girl, Campion’s follow-up, currently airing over three nights on Sundance TV in successive two-hour installments before it heads to Hulu. Set around Sydney’s Bondi Beach, the six-hour drama feels unmoored by its new location. The characteristic obsessions are all there—motherhood, misogyny, self-actualization—but removing them from the context of South Island’s dramatic scenery has somehow neutered their narrative potential.

It’s by no means the only issue with the series. Set against this much more conventional backdrop, the holes in Campion’s detective story are clearer, but the story and the dialogue have been heightened to the point of absurdist theater, as if to compensate. The first series saw Robin (Moss), a Sydney detective, tasked with finding a missing girl while visiting her hometown. Throughout her investigation, personal and professional concerns became increasingly entangled: The case required Robin to revisit her own sexual assault in high school; she was drugged and assaulted again by a colleague; and a primary suspect in the disappearance was revealed to be her real father. In China Girl, Robin is back in Sydney, four years later, investigating the death of a woman whose body was dumped into the ocean in a suitcase, and who appears, against all odds, to be linked to the daughter Robin gave up for adoption 18 years ago.

The primary antagonist in the show is misogyny, which seemed to have infected Laketop so perniciously in the first season that even an all-women retreat run by the enigmatic GJ (Holly Hunter) couldn’t endure it. “Are you a feminist? Are you a lesbian?” a drinker in the local bar asks Robin early on, before expounding on the sexual superiority of Thai women. Within the tight-knit rural community, which was deeply suspicious of outsiders, the hatred and subjugation of women had coagulated at every level, to the point where Robin’s boss, Detective Sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham) was revealed to be not only a rapist but also the mastermind of a ring of underage prostitutes.

But in China Girl, set in the much larger city of Sydney, the show’s continued presentation of men as rapists, pimps, cheats, and murderers is so committed it starts to become comical. There’s a group of unprepossessing bloggers who run a website for rating sex workers online and meet weekly to debate their favorites (the primary character literally lives in his mother’s basement). Robin’s male colleagues either proposition her or disparage the appearance of her new partner, Miranda (Game of Thrones’s Gwendoline Christie). Even Robin’s ally, a criminal pathologist, fixates on her sex life, telling her he’d marry her if only he had a bigger penis. The real villain, though, is Alexander “Puss” Braun (David Dencik), a German immigrant and former academic who’s cartoonishly evil in a logic-defying way, as if the Joker ran a brothel and groomed underage girls for the sole purpose of torturing their parents.

As despairing as they are about toxic masculinity, the new episodes are fixated on the subject of motherhood—what it means, what it costs, and the lengths women will go to when they’re denied it. Campion based some of this on her own experiences, and the inclusion of her own daughter in the cast, Alice Englert, playing Mary, Robin’s biological daughter, amplifies the energy. Nicole Kidman, a new addition to the show, plays Mary’s adoptive mother, and the tension between the woman who bore a child and the woman who raised her casts an ugly kind of pall over proceedings. “You withheld from her,” Kidman spits in one of the odder scenes, sporting prosthetic teeth and a curly gray wig. “Mothers don’t do that. They reassure their children. That’s what they do.” This accusation—that Robin, who gave up the baby she had after being raped as a teenager, is selfish and a bad mother—is a hard statement to qualify, but it’s far from being the only head-scratcher.

China Girl is full of aphorisms and statements that might be profound if they weren’t so nonsensical. The conversations between Robin and Miranda are particularly dense, as if Pinter were imagining female workplace conflict:

MIRANDA: I’m not your partner! I’m your whipping boy. I have to be hopeless so you can be clever and you can be capable.
ROBIN: I take care. I’m careful with people.
MIRANDA: I’m the one that cares!
ROBIN: No, I can translate. You’re fucking dangerous.

Worse is that Robin, who was so competent while being realistically vulnerable in the first season, is now a grab-bag of clichés about single women in their 30s: hostile, perpetually drunk, and obsessed with her fertility, plagued by recurring dreams about fetuses. Moss, Emmy-nominated for her mesmerizing performance in The Handmaid’s Tale, seems thwarted by the stilted dialogue she’s given here, and her spotty New Zealand accent doesn’t help. Kidman exudes bossy self-absorption as Julia, a devotee of Germaine Greer–feminism who’s consumed with parenting as it relates to her own identity. “Your baby has been loved by me very much, and now she hates me,” she tells Robin, bitterly.

But China Girl’s biggest failing is how it treats its female characters of color. The title refers to the police moniker given to the victim uncovered in the first episode, who was Thai, not Chinese. It’s obvious that Campion is perturbed by the legalized sex industry in Sydney, staffed overwhelmingly by migrants from Asia. In considering it, she makes two storylines converge: The sex workers in Puss’s brothel are also illegally acting as surrogates for infertile white couples. It’s a clumsy plot device, and the point it seems intended to make about Western exploitation of immigrants never comes through. Nor are the Thai characters given the opportunity to become more than window dressing—China Girl offers no context on their histories or feelings or dreams, beyond emphasizing that they mostly hate their jobs. In seeking to expose the ethical failures in how the West profits from foreign labor, Campion unwittingly perpetuates the cycle, giving short shrift to women whose presence merely embellishes the stories of her white characters.

To call Campion a living legend is to understate her achievements. She’s the only woman in film history to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which she achieved in 1993 for her Oscar-winning movie The Piano. Her work has consistently documented and mined misogyny as a subject, from her 1996 adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady, also starring Kidman, to her 2003 thriller In the Cut. The first season of Top of the Lake, which functioned perfectly as a standalone work, was subtle and nuanced enough to point out how hatred of women can become engrained in communities at every level. China Girl, removed from the enclosed landscape of Laketop, loses its distinctive visual environment (the cinematographer on the first season was Adam Arkapaw, who didn’t return for the second). But it also loses the sense of magical realism and willing suspension of disbelief that setting provided. The ending of the final episode points to a third installment of Top of the Lake, although at this point fans of the first season might be more inclined to pretend the second never happened.