Lulu Wang made Hong Kong her own character in Expats

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Lulu Wang originally came ExpatriatesNicole Kidman’s new miniseries that premiered Friday on Prime Video, as a sort of side project.

The director, just a few years removed from her Oscar-nominated drama The farewell, was initially only asked to direct a few episodes. But after examining the script, its scope — and especially her sources — she said she struggled to take on the whole thing.

“I didn’t know how to separate a few episodes and, you know, I only touched on this part, because it’s all interconnected,” Wang said in an interview with CBC News.

This interconnectivity from the novel on which the mini-series is based, Expatriates by American writer Janice YK Lee. It tells the story of three women living in Hong Kong – all American and all reeling from the effects of a central tragedy.

Lee’s novel moves back and forth through time, revealing fragments of a larger story in an expanding narrative. This scattered tracing technique meant that Wang needed complete control if she wanted to replicate it.

WATCH | Expatriates trailer:

“I wanted to keep that non-linear structure,” she said. “And so the only way to really keep all of this intact is if I could tackle the whole thing.”

This work has been in the works since 2020, when Kidman (whose production company first optioned the novel) brought on Wang. Wang brought on Lee to help create the series (with Lee writing the miniseries finale, “Home”), but she and an all-female writing team took serious liberties with the story . This meant strengthening the storylines of minor characters, changing the order of events, and – perhaps most important to Wang – focusing as singularly as possible on the setting.

“I knew I couldn’t do a series set in Hong Kong without making Hong Kong a character in itself,” she said. “And I wanted the journey that I was portraying for Hong Kong as a character to somehow, in parallel, reflect the journey of my characters in the story.”

A personal story

It was an interesting challenge. The farewell It was a directly personal story for Wang; She draws inspiration from the experience of her grandmother, living in China, who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. But Wang’s connection with Expatriates was more complex.

The director spent much of her life on two separate continents, growing up in Beijing until her parents’ exile in 1989. She then moved to Miami and had little experience with Hong Kong itself. But in Expatriates, she wanted to specifically explore something she had observed throughout her life: the difficult and sometimes destructive results of class societies.

“That was the line I constantly straddled,” Wang said. The many characters of Expatriates range from rich to struggling. Weaving that into the plot — while trying not to directly vilify any of them — was a huge struggle, she said, but also extremely important.

“(It’s) the fact that none of us can choose the circumstances we are born into – but we can choose how we behave in those environments and under those circumstances.”

A woman in a dark dress, standing on a sidewalk at night, walks toward the camera.
Nicole Kidman appears as Margaret in the new series Expats. (First video)

This mentality was really at the heart of Expatriates. Despite the fact that the series revolves around a domestic disaster, infighting and distrust, Wang says that wasn’t the message of the series. In all of her works, she says, she tests the relationships of her characters and the audience to force them to question why they are breaking up.

“That’s why my brother is a chef and why I’m a storyteller. Because I love bringing people to this metaphorical table to break bread together,” she said. “I look at divisions because my goal is actually to unify.”

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