Top of the Lake: China Girl

Sunday night was the long awaited return of the beautiful, otherworldly drama from Jane Campion, Top of the Lake. Before you delve into China Girl, it is important to remember what happened FOUR YEARS AGO in the eerie freshman season of Top of the Lake, co-written by Campion and directed by Garth Davis (before his feature length debut in Lion).

As mentioned by Campion, the first series reached a closure on that particular story. This new series follows a still-damaged Robin (played by the magnificent and powerful Elisabeth Moss) four to five years after the fallout of season 1. She has returned to her previous station as a detective back on the mainland in Sydney, Australia. Aside from a brief flashback to John-O (really don’t want to talk about that recast) and the crumbling of the life she grasped at in New Zealand, we are very much aware that this series takes place in entirely new settings.

Nothing makes that more evident than the new casting. This line-up is powerful and absolutely star-studded with some women that are currently and collectively handling some of the most impressive roles for women anywhere on television. I mean seriously, Nicole freaking Kidman has got to be having one of the most acclaimed year of television and film to date between her Cannes stunners like Killing of a Sacred Deer to  Big Little Lies she is on fire!! She is joined, of course by returning star Elisabeth Moss who is also having “moment” with her critically acclaimed work in The Handmaid’s Tale. She is clearly very good at playing strong women in circumstances that demand submission at the mercy of men.  And lets not forget Gwendoline Christie who finally gets to take off that Brienne of Tarth armour and explore a nuanced, at times very oddball character that shows her range as an actress.

And these are just three of the main leads, the supporting cast is brilliant as well, especially in light of another series based on a horrific crime committed against an underage asian sex-worker, with the jane-doe moniker China Girl. Robin is again a woman in a position where she is scorned and ostracized based on her gender, she is not alone this time and finds herself an unwilling mentor to Christie’s enthusiastic rookie Miranda Hilmarson. They are lumped together simply due to their common gender, a decision made for them by men in higher authority. This second series will continue its exploration of murder, lust and sins of man, but it will add in a complexity of motherhood as one key player in China Girl is Robin’s daughter, Mary from her teen pregnancy.

One aspect that I noticed almost immediately about chapter 1 and 2 of China Girl was the male gaze that Robin is constantly subjected to. In almost every interaction she has with a man she is either hit on or completely scorned due to her gender. This was also evident in series 1, but with more female leads, especially Kidman who gives off some GJ vibes, it is a tactic used almost exclusively. I believe that Campion is being very intentional about the objectification and over-sexualization of each woman. Almost every single interaction is cringe-worthy and crass. In several instances of both episodes, the everyday sexism is shown to be as powerful as the more overt actions such as the brothels and the group of trollers and creeps who rate the prostitutes online for the masses of lonely, desperate men on the internet. Campion proves her point about the base nature of these men time and time again throughout both episodes. It is a satirical, hyperbolic and at times unfortunately realistic exploration of modern gender roles and the role of feminism in a male dominated society. This is especially jarring in the scene between Mary, her older, intellectual boyfriend Puss and her adoptive mother Julia. It is a microcosm of sociology in a 5 minute scene. I expect a continued, deeper examination of relationships between women, men and the overall hierarchy of society within social, economic and class levels.

Specifically, the relationship between Robin, Mary and Julia (Moss, Alice Englert, and Kidman) or the natural born mother and adoptive mother of Mary is going to be a fascinating and heart-wrenching storyline. I see this season delving into the intricate and tangled relationships of mothers and daughters as well as all female driven relationships. One of the bright spots in a series that will be grim will be the burgeoning friendship(?) between Robin and Miranda, and honestly I just want to see more of Christie making strange noises pretending to be an alien. That is just pure, weird entertainment. The first two chapters of China Girl gave us a strong premise and did a sufficient job at introducing new characters and dynamics, but I want so much more! I am looking forward to watching the rest of the 3-day release of Top of the Lake : China Girl on SundanceTV in the next couple of days.


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