Expats review: 3 American women searching for resolution in the wake of a tragedy. Who do you identify with?

By Jane Kim. Posted March 22, 2024

Caution: This review contains spoilers

Expats is a story (based on the novel by Janice Y.K. Lee) about 3 American women living in Hong Kong, their lives forever intertwined by a missing child, wrestling with personal trauma and demons and grappling with how to move forward.

Clarke (Brian Tee) and Margaret (Nicole Kidman). Prime Video

Margaret (Nicole Kidman) and her husband Clarke (Brian Tee) are expats in Hong Kong. They live in a luxurious high-rise with their 3 children and Filipina helper, Essie, who cooks, cleans, and cares for the family. They meet Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a recent Ivy League graduate, on a boat one leisurely afternoon, form an easy connection, and exchange numbers. Fast forward, Margaret, in a moment of mom insecurity, disinvites Essie to the night market and opts to invite Mercy instead. In a crowded market, as Mercy is watching Margaret’s two boys, the younger one, Gus, goes missing. Hillary (played by Sarayu Blue), Margaret’s best friend who is also an expat, discovers that her husband, David (Jack Huston), is having an affair with Mercy, which began in the wake of Gus’ kidnapping.

It quickly becomes apparent that each woman is struggling with their demons and Gus’ disappearance is the catalyst that ultimately breaks each of them – while forcing them to confront their past and present and learn how to repair. How does one become whole if we choose not to face the fissures in our lives? The name Gus means “majestic, exalted.” While searching for Gus, the women are all in search of that.

We all are.

These three women are shades at a MAC beauty counter or models in a United Colors of Benetton billboard I would frequently see in my formative years. The fairer the shade, the deeper the trauma. As the episodes progress, we learn more about each woman’s unique circumstances that shaped their being, and you’ll begin to identify and relate more to one.

For me, it’s Mercy. She takes her attention off Gus for half a minute to text, and her life changes forever. We’ve all done it – whether driving or at dinner with a loved one – and escaped life-altering consequences. But Mercy didn’t. In a world where there are victims and perpetrators, she’s the latter. As the intro succinctly states – despite the tragedy and injustice – victims get a spotlight to share their stories. No one wants to hear about the perpetrators. But they are alive, their bodies intact – left to live out their days in the shadows, suffering.

Charly (Bonde Sham) and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) in “Expats” Prime Video

Mercy, a Korean American young woman in Hong Kong, looks as if she might belong, but is an outsider nonetheless. I can identify. As a Korean American expat kid in Tokyo, some of my culture clashes were viewed as confusing or suspicious while the same actions from my white friends were met with curiosity, humor, and grace. Blending into a crowd has advantages, but they are shallow ones and tend to run only skin deep.

 Expats is set during the Umbrella Movement. As the name suggests, protesters in Hong Kong used umbrellas to protect themselves from the tear gas used by police. Until 1997, Hong Kong was run by the UK as a British colony. Hong Kong and China agreed to “one country, two systems.” In 2017, China allowed elections – but there was a catch – the candidates had been pre-approved by China. Margaret and Hillary live within a similar construct – a different standard of life and reality applies to them, one of privilege and rank that Mercy does not inhabit.

The supporting cast added depth and perspective to the main characters’ experiences. The Filipina nannies, Essie and Puri, Pastor Alan and Hillary’s friend, Olive, could have a series in their own right. They each added a tenderness needed for me to complete the series.

Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelia Pardenilla). Prime Video

Expats has many themes, and I found myself wishing it would pick one and dive deeper. It’s about returning home while in a foreign land. It’s about expats versus immigrants; perpetrators versus victims. It’s about being the narrator of your life and coming to terms with your past and present if you want a fertile future.

In the last episode, each actor provides a moving scene.

While Margaret and her family are about to board a plane to return to the US, Margaret has a change of heart and decides to remain in Hong Kong. Her sudden revelation to stay behind rings untrue to me – no mom could leave a foreign land without resolution or acceptance of what happened to Gus, and she has neither. Throughout Expats, we see her moving through the days under a seemingly antidepressant-fueled fog. In the last scene, she’s more lucid and self-assured.

Mercy makes peace with her mom, who is visiting her in Hong Kong. They have both accepted her pregnancy, and we see her mom provide nourishment and comfort on plates of Korean food. Korean moms bestow love through food. I know this all too well, as my mother still makes food (i.e. dduk guk, bibimbap, Kalbi, etc.) regularly for my sister and me. I’m trying to nurture that muscle – but fear that one must be born on Korean soil to have it. As Mercy aptly says in one scene, “Koreans are different from Korean Americans.”

I got goosebumps when Hillary finally spoke her truth to her father, who was ill and about to have surgery. As a young child, she witnessed him physically abusing her mother, and unbeknownst to them, had a separate family. He doesn’t survive the surgery.

Margaret (Nicole Kidman) and Hillary (Sarayu Blue). Prime Video.

In the end, each woman knows that to move on, they need to come to terms with their demons. For some of us, it may come in the shape of forgiveness; for others, to learn to give ourselves grace.

The season concludes with a haunting rendition of We’re All Alone and tells us what we all come to realize at some point in our lives, if we are self aware: no one can spare your life but yourself. In the end, the line between victim and perpetrator grows blurry and if you remain a victim for too long, you take on characteristics of a perpetrator, infecting your loved ones and yourself. Time may not heal, but it most certainly changes things. It forces you to adapt, accept, and sometimes forgive. And if you can do that, you may just feel less alone.

 ***

Author’s Bio: Jane Kim is a morning reader who is admittedly envious of her son’s hair. Her work has been featured in GreatSchools, Motherly, and Her View from Home. She writes a weekly newsletter about her experiences parenting a neurodivergent child and other stuff. She lives with her partner and son in the Philadelphia suburbs. 

To see a sample newsletter and subscribe: https://conta.cc/46YaeXu

To learn more about her work: https://janekim.my.canva.site/

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