Review: Top of the Lake: China Girl

China Girl can’t even allow the audience to enjoy the pleasures of detection one expects from mystery shows.

Top of the Lake: China Girl
Photo: Sally Bongers/See-Saw Films/SundanceTV

Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s Top of the Lake suggests the worst union between a run-of-the-mill network crime show and the rigid symbolism of Campion’s filmography. From the former, the series borrows senseless and frenetic plotting that’s sustained by an endless torrent of dialogue rich in exposition and legal and medical jargon, and from the latter it inherits Campion’s self-conscious reduction of men and women as pawns on an über-feminist chessboard. The result is a preachy and joyless procedural that moves with tedious deliberativeness, regarding its obviousness as profundity.

China Girl finds Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) back in Sydney years after solving the case of a pregnant 12-year-old girl’s disappearance in New Zealand. Traumatized by her violent confrontation in the first season with her boss, Al Parker (David Wenham), who was revealed to be running a child prostitution ring, Robin is training cadets when a Thai prostitute washes up in a suitcase on a beach, compelling her to return to casework. From the opening of the first episode, we know that the prostitute, Cinnamon (Thien Huong Thi Nguyen), is connected to a brothel lorded over by Alexander (David Dencik), a German expat who fancies himself an intellectual feminist socialist.

With an audacious sense of rhetorical self-delusion, Alexander believes that he’s a champion of women for teaching desperate foreign girls scraps of English so that they may communicate with their johns. In Top of the Lake’s first season, Peter Mullan’s drug-dealing rapist represented the evil of flagrant alpha masculine entitlement, while Alexander serves as a perverse parody of how men have adapted feminist platitudes to obfuscate their fealty to patriarchy. Alexander’s nickname is tellingly “Puss,” which suggests an appropriation of pussy power for the sake of pussy possession.

Alexander is a promising idea for a villain, but Campion and Lee utilize him as an instrument for bludgeoning the audience with his unpunished piggishness. Mullan’s character had an appealing masculine electricity that complicated Top of the Lake’s sermonizing, as one understood why a woman would respond to him despite her better judgment. By contrast, Alexander suggests what might happen if Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s “Wild and Crazy Guys” were crossed with Fagin and played with a straight face. Alexander calls wealthy liberals out on their complacency with exploitation while, in case anyone’s forgotten, he’s grooming children into the sex trade.

Quite a bit of China Girl is devoted to watching Alexander terrify women, especially Robin and his under-aged girlfriend, Mary (Alice Englert), ruining a variety of social gatherings with his smug contemptuousness. Mary’s true identity is one of the season’s many ludicrous coincidences, as she’s Robin’s biological daughter, conceived in a gang rape when Robin was 16 and given up for adoption. This case is directly connected to Robin’s life, then, in a development that echoes the first season’s more persuasive intermingling of Robin’s past and present. It’s suggested that Mary’s blind allegiance to Alexander is due to her feelings of abandonment, and so Alexander is a manifestation of Robin’s matriarchal guilt. In case we don’t get it, a character remarks that Robin is a kind of surrogate mother, as the “China Girl” case is gradually revealed to pivot on prostitutes who masquerade as students, illegally bearing children for suburban families.

We’re also supposed to believe that Mary fraternizes with Alexander out of class guilt, as a challenge to her wealthy upbringing with her adoptive parents, Pyke (Ewen Leslie) and Julia (Nicole Kidman), who’re in the midst of a divorce. Mary accuses Julia of never loving her, and though Julia’s a stereotype of limousine feminism, there’s no evidence to support these charges. Mary’s a spoiled, alienated girl, and we’re supposed to accept that her irrationality is enough to drive her to Alexander, who maintains her loyalty even after he assaults Robin and manipulates young girls into servitude.

Dencik and Englert don’t have the chemistry necessary to transcend such contrivances. Alexander is such an odious, overbearingly obvious prick that it’s impossible to believe that anyone, including some of the other ringleaders in the brothel, would be willing to work with him, let alone be seduced by him. That Mary is seduced by Alexander, and is willing to betray her family for him, engenders our contempt for her rather than our sympathy. If Alexander hadn’t been drawn as someone who equates common courtesy to a bourgeoisie indulgence, his bamboozling of Mary might have scanned as a resonant parable for the ways our culture trains young girls to hate themselves. But the series is preoccupied with scoring easy points on louts and the brainwashed patsies (read: un-actualized women) who follow them into annihilation.

As in the first season of Top of the Lake, China Girl’s man-hating is often hysterical, reducing the female characters by association. A cadre of computer geeks are occasionally shown looking up prostitutes online in a coffee shop as an unofficial Greek chorus of objectification, discussing the women’s prowess and physical attributes in a way that might be appropriate for rating the gear shifts in a sports car. Many men speak in this fashion, but these are contemptuous caricatures of the arrested-development cases who haunt online comments boards. When Robin enters the bedroom of one of these men, of course we see wadded up tissues of cum underneath the bed.

The male cartoons keep coming with relentless predictability, which will be no surprise to viewers of the show’s first season, in which every male committed or enabled rape. A homicide detective bullies Robin’s new partner, Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), and hits on Robin, considering himself a gentleman for allowing her to choose how many nights they are to casually fuck. The showstopper, though, is when Al returns to see Robin in light of a civil suit he’s filing against her for shooting him at the end of the first season. Now in a wheelchair, Al locks Robin in a police station conference room and tries to strangle her, which she escapes by starting a fire. Astonishingly, this incident is never mentioned by the series again, as Robin and Miranda dutifully resume their search for kidnappers, rapists, and insane white knights.

With the exception of a few uncharacteristically quiet and powerful scenes in a morgue, China Girl can’t even allow the audience to enjoy the basic pleasures of detection that one expects from workmanlike mystery shows. We know most of what happened to Cinnamon from the opening scene, and the remaining question of her specific killer is eventually answered in a line of dialogue that’s so tossed off as to be irrelevant. Pivotal clues and suspects appear out of the blue to Robin and Miranda by the dictates of the plot, which connects every character in a ridiculous labyrinth of implication and serendipity. The protagonists don’t do anything of consequence, their flailing complementing Alexander’s unchecked crime spree to assert a feeling of powerlessness, over the characters as well as the audience. Yet this narrative passiveness scans less as psychosexual critique than as a case of writers getting lost in a thicket of obligatory happenstance.

 Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie, Alice Englert, David Dencik, Nicole Kidman, Ewen Leslie, Clayton Jacobson, Jenny Wu, Marg Downey, Geoff Morrell, Thien Huong Thi Nguyen, Linda Ngo, Michelle Ny, Susie Lindeman, Kevin MacIsaac, David Wenham  Network: Sundance TV  Buy: Amazon

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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