The mystery may move from the top of the lake to the depths of the ocean, but the tension, turmoil and totally addictive drama remain the same in Top of the Lake: China Girl, the gripping follow-up to Jane Campion’s great 2013 miniseries. The first two episodes as well as the entire six-part season were shown as separate special events at the Cannes Film Festival and will be broadcast on Sundance TV in September.
Based on the initial two installments, the new work bristles with the same kind of sexual, psychological and sociopolitical frankness that the original served up, but with a different feel based on the often grungy urban Sydney settings as opposed to the idyllic-on-the-surface, rotten-at-the-core New Zealand locations of the original. Sexual politics, be they in the macho-dominated police force, the coercive illegals-dominated sex trade or the tense upper-class home of a recently-gone-lesbian intellectual wife-and-mother played by Nicole Kidman, are everywhere, and the scenes range from prickly to convulsive.
The foundational image consists of strands of long black hair streaming from a suitcase that an Asian woman and a white man roll out to a rocky cliff and dump into the sea. After what looks to have been a difficult recovery period following the events of the first series, plus a planned marriage aborted at the altar, returning lead Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss, great to see in the part again) is getting back on her feet in a department ridden with male colleagues who at best can’t take her seriously and at worst outright laugh at her. She lives very modestly and tells anyone who cares that she’s sexually abstinent.
Before long, the suitcase that sports what looks like a horse’s tail bobs to the surface off Bondi Beach and Robin pounces on the case for herself. A wonderful dual stroke of writing and casting pairs Robin with partner Miranda, who’s played by none other than Gwendoline Christie, the fearsome Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones. Despite towering over her boss, Miranda is like an eager puppy around her, so idolatrous is she over Robin’s feats in New Zealand.
Deftly mixing requisite exposition and new character introductions with propulsive forward movement, Campion and co-writer/co-creator Gerard Lee signal that the repository of evil here will be Sydney’s prostitution business — specifically that part of it that involves Asian women snuck into the country and put to work as indentured servants/borderline slaves, undocumented women with no recourse.
Running the operation is a shrewd and perhaps even brilliant low-life with the doubly or triply gross name of Puss (David Dencik). A louche, stringy-haired creep who claims highfalutin’ academic credentials from Leipzig and can talk learned rings around anyone, he has captivated the romantic attentions of an attractive, barbed-tongued 17-year-old, Mary (Alice Englert).
Mary’s adoptive mother Julia (Kidman) and her husband Pyke (Ewen Leslie), who still live together despite the former’s recently announced switch of sexual preferences, have Mary and Puss to dinner at their posh suburban home in order to meet the alleged intellectual giant for the first time. But it all degenerates fast in an amusingly frightful scene of appalling rudeness and short tempers. The long and the short of it is that Mary intends to marry Puss, a dreadful prospect on the face of it that signals very big troubles for Mary in episodes to come.
With deft economy, writers Campion and Lee toss a lot of new balls in the air and keep them there in scene after scene of enveloping intrigue, intense incident and tart dialogue (the intellectually pretentious, emotionally combustible Julia’s spiel about how she taught revolutionary politics in high school for years is just one passing example). And all this in the first episode.
The second hour devotes itself more intently to the beginnings of the criminal investigation into the human contents of the washed-ashore suitcase. The badly disfigured corpse belongs to a young Asian female 17-20 weeks pregnant with an intact male fetus. Doubling up on the mid-life sexual orientation theme here, the amiable older male coroner on the case makes a point of telling Robin he’s switched from straight to gay.
A group of characters whose future relevance to the overall story remains vague through two episodes is a bunch of computer geeks resembling Silicon Valley rejects who all but live at a tech cafe, one of whom slips off to visit Puss’ brothel. Overall, the second episode, directed by Ariel Kleiman, who has one feature, Partisan, under his belt, is somewhat more low-key than Campion’s, but still strong.
With its sharp writing, superior cast, evocative locations, seductively seamy subject matter and delicious performances, Top of the Lake is decidedly back in a major way. After these two appetizers, you want the rest of the meal right away.
Production companies: See-Saw Films for BBC Two in association with BBC First and Foxtel in Australia, BBC UKTV in New Zealand, SundanceTV and Hulu in the United States, ARTE in France and BBC Worldwide
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie, David Dencik, Ewen Leslie, Alice Englert, Nicole Kidman
Directors: Jane Campion, Ariel Kleiman
Screenwriters: Jane Campion, Gerard Lee
Producers: Philippa Campbell, Libby Sharpe
Executive producers: Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Jane Campion
Director of photography: Germain McMicking
Production designer: Annie Beauchamp
Editors: Alexandre de Franceschi, Scott Gray
Music: Mark Bradshaw
Casting: Kirsty McGregory
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Six 58-minutes episodes