DVD Review—Top of the Lake: China Girl

DVD Review—Top of the Lake: China Girl

Coming about half a decade after the release of the original series Top of the Lake, the second season, subtitled China Girl, is striking by both how similar the sequel is to its predecessor, and how simultaneously shockingly different it is as well.

The original series featured an investigation into a traumatized twelve-year-old girl, found pregnant and shivering in a lake. The first season was set in the hauntingly filmed natural settings of New Zealand, which managed to be both beautiful and ominous at once. The second series, which opens in Sydney, Australia, features a case revolving around a dead pregnant woman found stuffed into a suitcase and thrown into the sea. China Girl’s urban jungle setting gives it a very different feel from the earlier series, for it loses the otherworldly “how can such horrible things happen there” aura that made the first series memorable and evocative. The urban jungle of the big city seems a more natural setting for violence and sexuality gone horribly wrong.

Many of the same themes link the two seasons: sexual violence and exploitation; distant relationships between families; memories and emotions that either leave scars or wounds that won’t heal.  It is important to watch the first series before China Girl. Too many plot points, themes, and references mean that skipping the earlier episodes will leave viewers lost in the second season.

Most of the characters from the first season are absent in the second, save for a couple of returning characters who have a couple of brief scenes in a single episode to wrap up their storylines.  Indeed, a different actor even takes over the role of Johnno, a pivotal role from the first season. The only major returning character is Elizabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a dedicated police detective trying to recover from traumatic events and to gain respect in a difficult career. It’s a carefully crafted performance, which focuses more on internalizing than scenery-chewing.  Moss gives an impressive performance based on bioluminescence—there’s a lot of light in the acting, but it’s a harsh light. In the first few episodes of China Girl, Robin comes across as cold, so when she angrily declares “I am a warm person” halfway through the series, it comes as a bit of a bump, and we gradually realize that Robin may be a genuinely warm person, but she has become emotionally insulated to protect herself from all the horrible things that have happened to her and that she’s seen.

A central plotline is Robin being reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption, who is now being raised by a separated couple: the mother (Nicole Kidman) has left her husband to start a lesbian relationship with one of her daughter’s teachers. This storyline reveals that when parents fail to provide emotional and ethical support to their children, children will not allow a vacuum to go unfilled, and Robin’s teenaged daughter is in a twisted relationship where she is being groomed by a middle-aged manipulator who exploits prostitutes while loudly proclaiming himself to be an advocate for women’s empowerment.  

The scene where Robin and her daughter reunite is a powerful two-hander and the best individual part of China Girl, but the best overall performance of China Girl comes from Gwendoline Christie as Miranda, a police officer who wants to befriend Robin despite Robin’s reluctance. Christie switches from earnest good nature to emotional extremes, and as we wonder why she makes the decisions she does and potentially endangers others, she never provokes contempt like some other characters do, but rather concern from the viewer. One cannot feel concern for a character unless one cares about her, and Miranda, who is flawed like every character in the series, manages to be the most likeable member of the cast.

And yet, for all the strong acting performances, China Girl came across as oddly unsatisfying. Some plotlines beg to lead up to a confrontation-scene catharsis that never comes, or at least never reaches the heights it ought to achieve. Some characters need to be called out for poor decisions or pure moral blindness. Indeed, the lack of a clear moral compass that leaves the emotional heart of the series weakened is matched only by the moral cowardice of several characters, who seem to be accepting of disturbing situations without having the guts to openly call a spade a spade. Many plot threads and ultimate fates lie dangling.  Worst of all, the explanation of the mysterious death is unconvincing because of the character who reveals the supposed truth. Since that character has been revealed to be a twisted, self-deluded liar many times over, and since we only have that character’s word for what happened, the solution simply isn’t wholly believable, and we are left with the sense that after everything, we still don’t have the truth of what happened.

Top of the Lake: China Girl is a well-acted drama with a lot of intelligent people involved in it, but it lacks a level of power and resonance that it ought to have possessed.

–Chris Chan

Top of the Lake: China Girl

BBC Studios


DVD $19.98

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