After loathing episode one, it took me a week to dive into the subsequent episodes but I ended up thoroughly enjoying Top of the Lake China Girl.
Season Two of Jane Campion’s female detective series was disorientating from the off. Season One’s familiar glaciers and lakes were replaced by downtown Sydney in a fish-out-of-water move so jarring, I actually felt car sick. So realistic was the suburban-cop-reassigned-to-the-sticks story that I even looked up on Wikipedia to see if Detective Sergeant Robin Griffith really was a Sydneyite…
It turns out Detective Sergeant Robin Griffith had been seconded to New Zealand all that time, but this location change was still totally discombobulating. Episode Two opened with a flashback to the mountains of the south island, but still, I felt as lost as Elisabeth Moss’s often cringe-worthy Aussie accent… great actress, terrible accent.
Okay, so let’s cut to the crux of what I would like to talk about today – cause, effect and coincidence. China Girl opens with a pair of brothel workers disposing of a young, Asian sex worker’s body in a suitcase on behalf of a sleazy, German named “Puss.” Personally, I prefer a killer’s identity to remain part of the mystery, but so far; fair enough.
Puss thinks he’s a political revolutionary; savior and toughener-up of women everywhere but, in fact, his fucked-up childhood means he’s nothing more than a semi-intellectual, hate-filled pimp who acts out by cajoling young women into prostitution.
Our hero, Robin Moss is charged with mentoring green-behind-the-gills Oggmonster cop, Miranda. Robin also ponders meeting up with Mary (played by Campion’s real-life daughter, Alice Englert) – the daughter she gave away after having been raped by multiple men, aged 16.
The series frankly, brutally and brilliantly shows women’s age-old and continued mistreatment at the hands of men, the gritty underbelly of Sydney’s sex trade and issues of gender, sexuality, motherhood, abandonment, abuse, manipulation and (in Mary’s case) coming of age.
But the thing I couldn’t get over, and let this be a lesson to all us budding writers, is the fact that our hero’s estranged daughter, Mary just so happens to be dating “Puss” – the chief suspect in the case that Robin happens to be investigating.
Worse, China Girls’ initiating homicide and Robin re-establishing contact with her daughter after a 17-year absence both occur on practically THE SAME DAY.
It doesn’t matter how well written, how rounded the characters, nor what groundbreaking (and brilliant necessary) feminist message may be found bubbling underneath the surface – savvy audiences will never accept this level of coincidence.
I decided there was enough to love in the series to just go with it, but come on, Jane Campion and Gerard Lee – you’ve had four fucking years to get this goddamn perfect and you make a rookie mistake like that?
SPOILERS FOR TOP OF THE LAKE CHINA GIRL
Worse, as the six-hour series continued, more and more coincidences started rearing their ugly heads. The Asian girls from the brothel were not only illegal sex workers, but also now surrogate mothers carrying implanted eggs for childless, white couples. Fair enough.
Miranda and her boss, Adrian were having an affair. Fair enough.
Miranda was acting weird because she was the same number of weeks pregnant as the dead China Girl. Hmmm. Odd but just about believable.
But then it was revealed that cop lovebirds Miranda and Adrian were also childless and illegally paying another Asian girl from the brothel to gestate their baby… in the very same surrogate ring. What we have here is another completely unbelievable coincidence serving as a major plotline. C’mon guys, do better!
GET OUTTA TOWN!
Sometimes, coincidences aren’t coincidences, they are destiny or serendipity or God or the universe playing a cruel trick. In Lost, everyone is part of a grand, cosmic plan. In Kiefer Sutherland’s short-lived Touch, it was explained that every life touches another and is bound (the ancient Chinese said) by an invisible red thread.
But, for this Chinese Girl, there were no invisible threads, no serendipity, no gods, no cruel joke and no red thread. Just plain old coincidence and I wasn’t having any of it!
In truth, Top of the Lake China Girl just about tied the strings together with enough good, old-fashioned detective work (storytelling clues) but these blunders in cause and effect logic can always, always be solved with a little time, thought and what writers call foreshadowing!
In fairness, as the coincidences and secrets started stacking up, the series became kookier and kookier, with touches of Lynchian weirdness – Gwendoline Christie portrayed oddball, hormone-fuelled rookie cop, Miranda perfectly. Yet her oddness was not for the sake of it, for she (and her and Robin’s boss, Adrian) had a secret. And as the writers introduced more threads, the more intriguing the show became.
Also, the whole cast was amazing with stellar performances from an unrecognisable, grey-haired Nicole Kidman as an ego-fuelled, middle-class drama-queen nightmare academic who thinks she’s seen the world (and Mary’s foster mother), Julia.
REALISM & CAPTURING VOICES
What wasn’t so good was the group of young men (led by a douchebag named “Fuck Wizard”) who met in a café to discuss prostitutes in front of the customers and the waitress. If this wasn’t unrealistic enough, the introduction of one of them as a mentally ill gunman coming out from out of nowhere was genuinely laughable.
Also, the cop who perenially hit on Robin just didn’t work – I appreciate what Campion was trying to show – that men are always predatory and often upfront and bold about it, plus how this behaviour is encouraged by other men – but these scenes were unbelievable. Men are douchebags, yes, but people just don’t talk like that.
However, in my humble opinion (as a man!) Top of the Lake China Girl captured women’s voices and perspective better than any other series, ever.
Yes, some of it was unhinged and hormonal and illogical, but the writing brilliant showed how women don’t navigate in the same straight lines as men. The feel, colour and texture of the series echoed how women think, feel and emote… especially when it comes to motherhood or associated missed chances.
That said, Jane Campion, you paint beautifully three dimensional flawed, manipulated, flawed, strong, vulnerable female characters, but your supporting male characters are woefully underdeveloped and stereotyped. Which makes a change from the vice versa!
The agent of disorder, Alexander or “Puss” was just about the only three-dimensional male – wonderfully written, creepy and unpredictable as hell – my blood boiled with misandry every time he was on screen; which is testament to Swedish-Danish actor David Dencik. Unfortunately, Puss was the only male character not painted in huge brush strokes. If the point of having Gerard Lee as co-writer was to lend a male voice to characters. It didn’t work.
My favourite aspect of the whole Top of the Lake China Girl season (and one which reduced me to tears) was, after everything she had been through and the awfulness of the sex industry and death and rape and corpses and dead foetuses, the optimism of the final shot. Was it Pyke knocking on Robin’s door? Had she finally found love? I guess you’ll never know… but I know.
And that gives me hope.
I’ve seen all six episodes, but Top of the Lake China Girl continues on BBC2 on Monday nights.