This Top of the Lake: China Girl review contains spoilers.
Top of the Lake: China Girl Episode 1
There’s a macabre sense of humour in the dialogue-free opening of China Girl, the follow-up to 2013 crime drama Top Of The Lake. A large suitcase is rolled into a dirty kitchen where a woman serves a meal to two schlubby guys dressed in underpants and holey t-shirts. One of the men, now in trackie bottoms sliding down his arse, pushes the case off a cliff but it stops dead before the edge, requiring him to crawl out to it, anchored at the ankles by the woman. Once in the water, the case sinks elegantly to the ocean floor.
It’s a classic genre premise, fringed with offbeat humor and unexpected beauty. That’s the kind of crime drama Jane Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee make in Top Of The Lake. Real-world detective mystery with added… weirdness.
The first season pitted Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) against macho patriarch Matt Mitcham and corrupt Superintendent Al Parker. Matt’s twelve-year-old daughter was found to be pregnant, the result of a paedophile ring operated by Parker and uncovered by Griffin. Alongside that ran the story of a radical women’s camp led by a charismatic spiritual leader JG (Holly Hunter). Set in Griffin’s remote New Zealand mountain hometown, it was otherworldly and atmospheric, a scandalous story scattered with moments of bright comic oddness and biblical symbolism.
China Girl has lost the lake but kept the scandal, humor, and strangeness. The setting, Sydney, is urban but butts up against the ocean so there’s room for more of Campion’s dreamlike water imagery. While the action and characters are being established on land, episode one keeps checking in on the suitcase, a bizarre sight with long black hair escaping it. Eventually, it floats to the surface, a moment filmed like a celestial ascent. Secrets can’t be sunk. The past will rise up. And so Robin Griffin’s next case begins.
The murder of the woman in the suitcase—an East Asian sex worker known as ‘Cinnamon’—has a chief suspect who turns out to be dating the daughter that Griffin gave up for adoption in her teens. If such an improbable contrivance bothers you, then this may not be your kind of crime drama. Top Of The Lake isn’t quite as interested in realism as it is in symbolism and mythic themes.
Motherhood is one such theme in China Girl (we’ve yet to see the relevance of the in-vitro fertilisation image in the opening credits, but expect it to be used up). Griffin’s biological daughter Mary (Alice Englert), the result of a gang rape at age fifteen, is locked in conflict with her adoptive mother Julia (Nicole Kidman). As the murder and her own curiosity bring Griffin closer to Mary, what is she to her? A stranger or a relative? To judge by the way Robin keeps Mary’s letter under her pillow and clasps it to her, she’s her long-lost sweetheart.
A detective is all Griffin is trying to be. Back as a city cop after four years in the New Zealand wilderness, she’s given up on love and hiding in her work. What happened between her and series one romantic interest Johnno Mitcham isn’t explained. Did she really walk out on their wedding day, she’s asked by her brother Liam (unseen and, as far as I remember, unmentioned until now?). If so, why?
Whatever happened, Griffin’s a mess. She’s drinking too much, snapping at underlings on the job and waking up screaming from nightmares about babies.
Griffin’s baby is now a highly self-possessed/nightmare of a seventeen-year-old raised by upper middle class liberal parents, Julia and Pyke. Mary’s in love with Puss, a self-styled bohemian intellectual who’s tangled up with brothel Silk 41. Played by David Dencik, Puss is a captivatingly horrid creation. He has that same repulsion-attraction quality as Peter Mullan’s Matt Mitcham. On screen you can’t look away, but in real life, you’d run a mile and hope your seventeen-year-old daughter would too.
Is Puss as repulsive as the gaggle of men we meet reviewing women working in the sex trade online as if they were movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It’s a close-run thing. He’s worse than Griffin’s boorish chauvinist colleagues and the bro-dude cadet with whom she loses her rag.
The casting is solid all round, and the performances—Moss and Kidman especially—terrific. Episode one introduced us to dubious men and unusual women. Griffin’s colleague Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) stands out like last series’ Bunny, a classic Campion oddball who’s simultaneously funny but desperate.
Pyke (who must have the patience of ten saints not to tell Mary what an arsehole Puss clearly is) aside, none of the men who feature so far are exactly decent. Even Griffin’s kindly boss has something to do with the young women at Silk 41, or at least with the one to whom he gives a package and outsized plush panda bear.
It may lack the dreamy landscapes of the first season, but this opener still has all the same guts, brains and eccentricity. Add to that an involving crime plot and a cast this exciting and unpredictable, and you’ve got a combination that can’t do much wrong.