Jane Campion Brings Bonkers Back With ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’

Returning after 4 years is Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s ambitious small-screen experiment in dishevelling the police drama, normally so sleek and methodical, to create a bizarre new breed: part-farce, part-noir.
By  · Published on August 20th, 2017

Elisabeth Moss builds on an already fantastic year with this delightfully weird follow-up to 2013’s first season.

Returning after 4 years is Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s ambitious small-screen experiment in dishevelling the police drama, normally so sleek and methodical, into a bizarre new breed: part-farce, part-noir, fully feminist. Demons fought in the first season rear their ugly head again in this six-parter, as the niggling memory of the baby she gave up at age 16 torments detective Robin (a ferocious Elisabeth Moss) – who is by now readjusting to life and work in Sydney after series one’s traumatic New Zealand sojourn – into an attempt at reunion. But Robin’s healing is complicated by her first case on the job: a suitcase trailing human hair has washed up on Bondi Beach, its female occupant made virtually unidentifiable by violence, saltwater, and the red herring paper trail of a false passport.

Paired up with junior colleague Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) – the clownishly funny, hyper-emotional yang to Robin’s somber, unsmiling ying – the senior detective throws herself into the racistly labelled ‘China Girl’ investigation with all the zeal of someone recently made single (you’ll see how in “The Loved One”), dodging sexual advances left, right and center in the process. In fact, Robin must be the most propositioned character on TV, doling out emphatic nos to aging coroners and dogged colleagues every five minutes.

She refuses to burn up under the male gaze, but its ominous omnipresence in China Girl is enough to make every rejected suitor feel like something more sinister; a bullet she barely dodges every day.

This is just one element of the show’s rich tapestry of gender politics, which centers on male misogyny as much as it does motherhood. We meet daughters who reject their mothers’ feminism and claim their sole ambition is to be wives; mothers who choose celibacy; those who have suffered miscarriages; and later, in “Surrogate,” the women on both sides of surrogacy agreements. There is compassion and generosity in the way China Girl explores its female politics: teenage girls who claim to “hate feminism” don’t become its antiheroes, nor are they painted as gender traitors. Instead, the show explores their agency and youthful vulnerability with as much sex-positive empathy as it does for the Thai women who work nights in New South Wales’ newly legal sex industry, and days in its black market business of surrogacy.

Of the show’s male lot, married men engaged in extramarital affairs are the most virtuous you’ll get. There’s nose-crunching violence against women (“Birthday”), and pervy police officers who banter about mentally ill women and dead prostitutes, before discussing the mythical dichotomy between women’s “yes-nos” and “real nos” to men’s sexual advances. Elsewhere, an unsuspecting waitress is the subject of hushed talk between a group of “friendzone” obsessed fan-boys who run a sex industry review site. Not so quiet is all their loud note-comparing on the sex workers, whom they discuss with all the sensitivity and respect you’d expect from a conversation about microwaves. Greasy-haired, spotty-faced, and unable to make eye contact with women, Campion employs the full host of woman-hating tropes in China Girl’s sweeping feminist polemic.

A wilier breed to classify is David Dencik’s philosophically waxing, anti-imperialist Alexander, who lives above the brothel where the dead woman worked and bears all the cosmetic features of a neighborhood pervert. He’s confirmed as one when we’re introduced to him as the dodgy older “boyfriend” of Mary, Robin’s biological daughter (Jane Campion being the real-life parent to Alice Englert, the enchanting actress who plays the tenacious teenager). Initially, we’re not sure how seriously to take him, and neither are Mary’s adoptive parents: their first meeting, in the family’s Big Little Lies-esque mansion, prompts cool and cold responses respectively from Ewen Leslie’s impossibly chilled Pyke and the highly-strung, Germaine Greer disciple Julia (a freckled and excellent Nicole Kidman). To Pyke and Julia, the 42-year-old vindicates his relationship with the “nearly legal” Mary by proclaiming it a revolutionary, post-feminist liberation from social norms. In Alexander, China Girl shares something of the academic frivolity of I Love Dick (albeit seedier here).

Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee’s characters are as eccentric as they come, even without the bizarre circumstances the show finds them in, but the writing team never soothe us with a knowing wink. This is all part of Campion’s characteristic charm: as with her other worlds, the messy goings-on in China Girl arouse nothing but the poker-face treatment of a therapist. Here, near-psychedelic weirdness is the new normal, and we are the dull intruders – and it feels delightful.

This niggling sense of outréness is only further heightened by the fact that so many of China Girl‘s characters’ sins go completely unavenged. While Liam Neeson’s Taken character might have beaten the lecherous Alexander to a bloody pulp, for instance, Pyke spends much of his time playing “cool dad” and yes-man to his daughter, who is so obviously being preyed upon. Even Julia, who initially bristles with righteous fury at her first meeting with Alexander, is tranquilized into inaction by her new partner (Marg Downey), who is so Zen she makes Buddha seem hysterical. We’re so used to seeing abuse of this kind scolded and punished onscreen, but the show is committed to depriving us of that catharsis. It leaves the fear, outrage and nausea that Mary’s relationship with Alexander inspires to fester within us and permeate the rest of our viewing experience.

Lest its Campion credentials be doubted in the slightest, China Girl’s circus of characters come complete with the sordid spider’s web of romantic relationships we’ve come to expect from the writer/part-director (TV rookie Ariel Kleiman helms 4 of 6 episodes). Some of the ethical snags here – a boss cheating on his wife with a junior colleague, for instance – seem a bit pedestrian in comparison to her past work. But elsewhere, there are more gripping, less ethically dubious love-knots: at one point, for example, an adoptive parent becomes lover to their child’s birth mother (see the coyly-named fifth episode, “Who’s Your Daddy?”).

The warped bond between Alexander and Mary is as close as the show gets to the depravity of Top of the Lake’s first season – in which father-daughter ties were marred by rape and its unthinkable consequences – and A Girl’s Own Story (an oddity Campion produced long before Jaime and Cersei Lannister became the poster couple for sibling incest).

Lensing our time with China Girl is cinematographer Germain McMicking. His gorgeous overhead and underwater shots of Bondi remind us that we’re far from the cloistered confines of season one’s New Zealand lakeside menagerie of weirdoes – the sheer number of whom was too statistically improbable not to interfere with the show’s serious ambitions back then. Now, though, in the ecological roominess of Sydney’s ample concrete, sand, and water, China Girl feels less like a redneck’s fever dream than the first season did, and so the tangle of coincidences that eventually form the nexus between Robin’s case and her family life prove much more believable.

At times, China Girl undercuts its own law-and-order drama credentials with some hastily thought-up exposition. But it deals out a melee of emotions with such force that it’s likely you won’t even remember its illogics by the end of “The Battle of the Mothers”, the show’s climactic finale (is Campion a Game of Thrones fan?).

Filled with such grotesqueries as fetuses in jars and accented by a partly sax-y, noir-ish score, Top of the Lake: China Girl is a decisively feminist crossbreed of genre that blends police procedural with Laurel and Hardy humor; a coming-of-age story with the macabre. For fans of the first series, it is gratifying continuity and beautiful evolution, while for newcomers, China Girl will at first baffle, and then enamor, audiences with the wonderful weirdness of Jane Campion.

Top of the Lake: China Girl is available in the UK now on BBC iPlayer, and will air for US viewers on the Sundance Channel in September. 

Related Topics: , , ,

Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.