First look: ‘Expats’ on Prime Video

Two Filipino actresses join the talented cast of this series that examines the many burdens of a woman.

I first became intrigued about Expats when I saw its trailer. I think Nicole Kidman is a great actress, the casting seems stellar, and I love Hong Kong. But what really sparked my interest was hearing my mother tongue, Filipino, spoken not with a “coño” or a “neutral” accent—but in an animated, rapid staccato with all its glorious, unapologetic vowel sounds.

So, when the series dropped its first two episodes on Prime Video a little over a week ago, I watched both in one fell swoop.

And now I’m hooked.

Women in the spotlight

Expats follows three American women living in Hong Kong whose lives intertwine in life-altering and devastating ways. 

The cast is headlined by a mesmerizing Nicole Kidman. Though always a commanding presence onscreen, Kidman seems to be a completely different person altogether in Expats, embodying the role of a grief-stricken and guilt-riddled mom—haunted and haunting at the same time.  

Nicole Kidman plays Margaret Woo, a grief-stricken mom of three.

She plays Margaret Woo who moved from New York City to Hong Kong’s posh Mid-Levels area with her husband, Clarke (Brian Tee), and their three kids. A tragic event transformed her from glamorous wife to a shadow of her former self, grief and guilt eating her up from within every single day.

Sarayu Blue is Hilary Starr, an accomplished woman whose marriage is crumbling.

Her frenemy Hilary Starr (played by an equally riveting Sarayu Blue) is also grappling with her own tragedy. Unlike Margaret, who unravels right before everyone’s eyes, Hilary seems to be skillful at concealing her inner turmoil. She is able to continue looking all composed and polished despite her crumbling marriage to David (Jack Huston). 

A fresh-faced Ji-young Yoo plays Mercy, a 24-year-old Columbia University graduate who doesn’t seem to have any clear direction in life.

Completing our fascinating troika of female leads is 24-year-old Mercy (a fresh-faced Ji-young Yoo in what seems to be her breakout role), the series’ narrator and a Korean-American who moved to Hong Kong for a “fresh start.” Despite having an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, Mercy lives an aimless existence, using her connections to land her small-time gigs just to get through another day. A seemingly inconsequential decision gets her sucked into the glitzy yet bleak world of Margaret and Hilary. 

Award-winning Filipino actress Ruby Ruiz is Essie, the Woos’ beloved nanny.

Joining the talented female-led cast are two Filipinos—award-winning actress Ruby Ruiz and Hong Kong-based singer Amelyn Pardenilla. Ruiz plays Essie, the Woo’s beloved yaya, and Pardenilla is Puri, the Starr’s dependable housekeeper. 

Hong Kong-based Filipina singer Amelyn Pardenilla is Puri, the Starrs’ dependable helper.

Margaret, though kind and generous to Essie, feels a gnawing envy toward her kids’ nanny as she grows very close to the Woo children, especially the youngest, Gus. I have to see more of Puri, who seems to be doing a great job in keeping the Starr household spick-and-span. 

Expats is also female-led behind the camera, with direction by Lulu Wang (The Farewell) and an all-women writers’ room. The six-part mini series is adapted from the acclaimed novel The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee. 

A gripping premise 

The two-episode premiere can be summed up in one of Margaret’s most thought-provoking lines from Episode 1: “I just sometimes want to be alone, where I’m not somebody’s wife, not somebody’s mother, where I’m not defined by tragedy.”

Expats is a meditation on grief, regret, and the many burdens society heaps on
women’s shoulders.

The expectations placed upon the shoulders of women are oftentimes overwhelming. We are expected to take on multiple roles and perform each of them well. We are to keep ourselves together even when things are falling apart. And the first two episodes encapsulate these—the burdens women continue to bear against a backdrop of unrelenting patriarchy and near-impossible societal expectations. 

The episodes so far are a provocative exploration of regret, grief, and pain—emotions women like me know all too well. It helps, too, that the series is shot in Hong Kong in an atmospheric, almost Wong Kar Wai-esque way.

Some critics aren’t too happy with the slow-burn pace, but I’m not complaining because the series, I think, is intended to be meditative. I don’t suggest binge-watching it, though, once all episodes have streamed, as its bleak tone could wear you out emotionally. 

The series is shot in Hong Kong in an atmospheric, almost Wong Kar Wai-esque way.

Three episodes in (the latest dropped a few days ago) and Expats is proving to be a dark yet nuanced narrative about the things women have to put up with to stay sane in a maddening world. I await the fourth episode with bated breath. 

Expats premiered last Jan. 26 on Prime Video with new episodes dropping every Friday.

Associate Editor

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