TV shows

‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’ is ‘beyond feminism, it’s ovarian, know what I mean?’

In the second season of Jane Campion’s landmark television show, the body of an Asian woman is found at Bondi Beach.

“I want it to go for six hours, and I want it to be about a group of postmenopausal women. Unfuckables,” said Jane Campion of her vision for the television show Top of the Lake.

In the first episode of its second season, a turquoise suitcase containing a woman’s body washes up on the shore of Bondi Beach, pulled out of the water by a lifeguard too late to save her. A fragile-looking, almost birdlike female detective with iceberg-blue eyes pries open the case and sees its gruesome contents. True to Campion’s original vision, Top of the Lake: China Girl dwells resolutely in the land of the unfuckable.

Co-written by frequent collaborator Gerard Lee and co-directed by Ariel Kleiman, Top of the Lake: China Girl is set four-ish years after season one’s Queenstown paedophile-ring bust. A few weeks after an aborted marriage, the singular Elizabeth Moss is back as Detective Robin Griffin (now a Detective Senior Constable). She has returned to Sydney to reconnect with the daughter she gave up for adoption and get her life back on track by training new police recruits on the Walsh Bay wharf.

Play
Top of the Lake: China Girl.

Taking on the risky business of migrant sex work, Campion has spoken of basing the new series on extensive research conducted in a stretch of brothels in the south-eastern Sydney suburb of Mascot. “Silk 41”, the fictional centrepoint for much of the series’ drama, functions as a red-lit replica of the establishments Campion has reported frequenting.

A sassy Prada-wearing escort serves, perhaps, to include the perspectives of the sex workers in the advocacy group Scarlet Alliance who also worked with Campion in an advisory capacity. These moments of meta-fiction, though sometimes a little clumsily integrated, highlight Campion’s intent in not only making good use of her vast research, but also acknowledging and respecting voices so often ignored.

Campion sets herself apart from the run of the mill crime drama tropes by de-eroticising Cinnamon, the “shop name” of the woman found in the suitcase, whose image and life are interrogated throughout the series. Cinnamon’s waterlogged body is shown decomposing and distorted beyond recognition, an honest depiction reminiscent of Lynda La Plante’s landmark crime drama series Prime Suspect.

Though there have been critics who feel Campion’s signposting of feminist issues is heavy-handed, in a Q & A after the Sydney premiere of the show’s first two episodes, Campion declared: “China Girl is beyond feminism … it’s ovarian, know what I mean?”

Indeed everything is focused around pregnancies, even morgue scenes. As Robin (Moss) and the coroner, Ray (Geoff Morrell), dig around in the body of Cinnamon to discover a tiny male foetus that turns out to be an irregular DNA surrogate implant, Campion is not-so-subtlety reminding us that not all sex-work takes place in a brothel.

Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin. Image credit: See-Saw Films.
Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin. Image credit: See-Saw Films.

After the suitcase discovery, Robin is teamed up with rookie cop Miranda (played by Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame), who serves as an open and very enthusiastic offset to Robin’s stand-offishness. Moss and Christie play off each other wonderfully, as do Alice Englert and Nicole Kidman, who play Robin’s daughter Mary, and her adoptive mother Julie, who Campion has described as “a suburban queen; a control freak brought to her knees.”

Mary and Julie clash – horribly – and in a typical adolescent act of rebellion Mary brings home series villain Puss (David Dencik), a brothel owner and faux-intellectual more than 20 years her senior.

Puss (soft spoken and aptly named) waxes lyrical about feminism and quotes Dostoevsky whilst toting a copy of the Socialist Alternative rag Red Flag and lighting a skinny, half-smoked cigarette. Living above Silk 41, he claims to be a product of rape, similar to Mary. He seems aloof from the violence and death surrounding him, yet there is something infuriatingly condescending about his gap-toothed smile when he faces off against Julia in a disastrous dinner scene.

He’s an insidious version of the other machismo collective of the series, a cafe-bound ring of men who run “Hooker Rater,” a fairly self-explanatory porn website. The show’s redeeming male presence is, however, Mary’s adoring adoptive father, Pyke (played by Dead Europe’s Ewen Leslie), who functions as a welcome lynchpin for much of the drama’s underlying tensions. Apart from Pyke, it would be difficult to find any character in the series who isn’t inherently flawed or unlikeable. Likeable simply isn’t Campion’s shtick.

David Dencik as Puss. Image credit: See-Saw Films.
David Dencik as Puss. Image credit: See-Saw Films.

The somehow ominous visual beauty of Top of the Lake: China Girl is truly something to behold. Harking back to her earlier work (in films like In the Cut and The Piano), poetic images – a burning wedding dress held above a bonfire by two cackling men on a ute, a suitcase drifting peacefully across the sea floor – are poised against gorgeous vistas: New Zealand mountain ranges or a Sydney seascape.

There is definitely a sense of Campion being more adventurous in this second season, in both the defiant subject matter and images that crystallise it. In one dream sequence, for instance, fluorescent babies surround a chuckling Robin before she is shown thrashing and screaming in her sleep.

The wide-angle shots of Walsh Bay as police jog by in lapis uniforms – in a rippling reflection of the surrounding sea – offset what would otherwise be an over-reliance on mid-shot interior dialogue scenes, which threaten to turn the series into a boring police procedural. (I’m looking at you The Fall.)

The red-lit group scenes shot at Silk 41 are catapulted straight out of Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy, all arms and freshly-shaved legs jumbled and draped in a sleepy, feminine sculpture. Piano filters through the series elegantly, turning the otherwise abject image of the submerged suitcase containing a dead body into an astonishingly elegant ballet of oceanic wilderness.

This being said – not all experimentations pay off. A dubious film-within-a-film, meta-fictional subplot to set up an end-of-series reveal about South-East Asian surrogacy is an unconvincing dalliance that probably could have been left on the cutting room floor.

At a recent talk on Top of the Lake at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Lee admitted: “There isn’t a lot of [real] police work that happens [in the show], instead things are solved by someone simply calling and leaving a tip.” This rather convenient occurrence does lead to slight plot inconsistencies and stretch one’s suspension of disbelief at points too far. Lee and Campion, preferring to focus on microagressions, gender politics and interpersonal relationships in lieu of detailing crime drama’s usual nitty-gritty police work, do endanger the series’ otherwise watertight persuasiveness.

This ambiguous relationship to convention however, has not so much dogged as inspired much of Campion’s career, as the tensions of sexual and racial politics have been channelled through her mythical personal vision.

Blythe Worthy, PhD Candidate, The University of Sydney, University of Sydney.

This article first appeared on The conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Now that you’ve reached the top, how often do you say, “Thank You”?

What kind of a leader are you?

How do you define success? The typical picture of success is a large bank balance, expensive material possessions and fame. But for some, success is happiness that comes from fulfilling a childhood dream or attaining a sense of purpose. For those, success is not about the volume of an applause or the weight of a gold medal, but about showing gratitude and sharing success with the people without whom the journey would be incomplete. Here are a few ways you can share your success with others:

Speech

While it sounds simple and formulaic, a genuine, emphatic and honest speech can make everyone feel like they are a part of a winning team. For a personal touch, acknowledge the team’s efforts by mentioning each one of them by name and thanking them for their unique contributions. Hearing their own name makes people feel proud and honoured.

Realise the success should be passed on

Instead of basking in the glory of their own achievements, good leaders encourage, motivate and inspire others to achieve success. A good leader should acknowledge his own mistakes, share his experience and knowledge and cultivate an environment where every milestone is an accomplishment for everyone in the team. Talk about challenges, the personal and professional struggles that you had to overcome. Sharing setbacks helps others to relate to you and helps them overcome struggles they may be facing.

Celebrate

Nothing beats shaking-off the deadlines, work-pressure and fatigue by celebrating success together. Enjoying a job well done together as a team brings about a spirit of camaraderie. A catered lunch, evening drinks or a weekend off-site, the important thing is to enjoy the win with people who have gone through the same struggle.

Keep it flexible

The last thing you want is for work celebrations to become monotonous and repetitive. Not all milestones have to be celebrated in a grand manner, some can just be acknowledged with gestures such as personal Thank You notes or writing a recommendation on LinkedIn.

Make success more meaningful

Go beyond numbers, sales targets and profits and add meaning to the achievement. Reminding everyone of the larger purpose inspires people. It’s easy to lose interest when you do something in a routine fashion. Giving a larger meaning to success makes people feel more involved and energized.

Great leaders are those who share their victories with others. They acknowledge that the path to success is collaborative. Great leaders don’t stand in front of their team, but are found working amongst them. This video is an ode to such leaders who epitomise the Chivas culture and know how to Win The Right Way. Follow Chivas on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Chivas Studio Music CDs and not by the Scroll editorial team.