Top of the Lake: China Girl Is a Disappointing Follow-up

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Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake: China Girl. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti/SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

Top of the Lake: China Girl is a disappointing follow-up to its predecessor, and there’s no reason why it should have been: The core of the production brings back many of the same artists who made the original a success, including executive producer, director, and co-writer Jane Campion and her leading lady Elisabeth Moss, reprising the role of detective Robin Griffin, who investigated a murder in her rural hometown and confronted her own past as sexual-assault survivor along the way. Many of the narrative and rhetorical elements that made the original memorable are in place here as well, including an ambitiously interwoven series of parallel stories that deal directly with gender-wars subject matter in a fashion so straightforward that it verges on a parable. The original’s primordial scenery, a mix of forested mountains and fog-shrouded bodies of water, had an Edenic feel that suited dialogue rife with blunt Biblical allusions: Misogynist he-man Matt Meacham’s seaside compound was called Paradise, and Matt himself was described as a snake. This continuation, which returns Robin to Sydney, revolves around another investigation with gender-wars overtones: A murdered Asian sex worker’s body is stuffed inside a hard-plastic suitcase by an unknown assailant and dumped into the harbor. But this one lacks the original’s intuitive sense of rhythm and organization, and often seems more scattered and digressive than multilayered. And instead of letting feminist themes emerge organically from its situations, it stuffs them into every nook and cranny of every scene, mostly via dialogue instead of the sorts of hypnotically intense, even primal images that distinguished the original.

There’s also an emphasis problem: After an initial hour directed and co-written by Campion, which establishes the brothel where the murdered woman lived and worked, as well as Robin’s employment as a junior Sydney homicide detective, her anxiety over an impending civil suit for shooting her roofie-using, youth-exploiting supervisor at the end of the last mini-series, and many ancillary stories, China Girl shifts the Asian characters into the background and focuses on a contrived story that never quite convinces. It turns out that the pimp who runs the aforementioned brothel, a pretentious German named Alexander “Puss” Braun (David Dencik), has a white teenage girlfriend named Mary (Alice Englert, Campion’s daughter), and Mary just happens to be the same child that Robin gave up for adoption 18 years earlier. (Shades of Moss’s Peggy on Mad Men, who also gave a child up for adoption.)

China Girl then devotes an increasing percentage of its screen time to Mary’s conflicts with her adoptive parents, Julia (Nicole Kidman, made up with distractingly prominent freckles and what look like fake teeth) and Pyke (Ewen Leslie, a standard-issue scruffy, intellectual “nice guy”). Mary’s first big move in the story is to invite her pimp boyfriend home to meet her parents, and after they all fight at the dinner table over Puss’s casually sexist provocations, take him to her room to have sex. Once Robin enters this exceptionally dysfunctional picture, China Girl threatens to turn into a Todd Solondz movie with Kiwi, Aussie, and English accents; there’s even a flashback at the start of episode two to an aborted wedding that features a cheating groom who ends up behind bars and a group of revelers burning a wedding dress on a huge pyre.

If the mini-series had leaned into the absurdity of its central situation — the heroine’s daughter is in love with the man who might be responsible for the murder of the woman whose corpse she photographed in the morgue — China Girl could have succeeded as a kind of fever dream with police-procedural elements. But too much of it plays flat because Campion and her filmmaking collaborators seem uncomfortable working a grim yet still broadly comedic mode. She’s much better at doing Gothic earnestness with heavy symbolism and bursts of expressionist pain and violence, plus occasional sick humor. She and her fellow directors never quite get a handle on the tone here, which means that a lot of the situations and dialogue end up playing like something out of a bad late-period Woody Allen movie — the kind where you’re reasonably sure that Allen didn’t do any rewriting and nobody on set had the nerve to suggest that he should. “You should hear him talk about Dostoevsky!” Mary tells her father while her much-older beau sleeps in her childhood bed, facedown and buck naked. Worse still are the cutaways to a bunch of young johns who gather in a coffee shop to rate sex workers on a Yelp!-type website. Nearly everything in these scenes — from dialogue like “I transcended the friend zone, mate” and “[The sex workers] are like plants, you gotta water ‘em with your cock!” to a debate over whether a waitress likes one of them or is just being professionally polite — has an amateurish, position-paper quality. The overall clumsiness of the show’s articulation of theme damages the more astute political observations, in particular the way that upper-middle-class, college-educated activists tend to romanticize and exaggerate the autonomy of sex workers like the ones who work in the German’s brothel.

China Girl feels like the second installment in a bid to create something in the vein of the original Prime Suspect, which told the story of a tough but damaged policewoman carving out a space for herself in a male-dominated job and world. But the dip in quality is so pronounced that its relationship to the original may conjure up not-fond memories of seasons one and two of True Detective. Almost everything that felt uncannily assured the first time out feels forced here, the racial and sexual politics are ineffectively articulated (with a few exceptions), and the show’s comfort with pushing the story of the brothel workers deeper into the background makes it feel like an example of the same societal tendencies that characters like Robin keep rightly railing against. It’s worth seeing for Elisabeth Moss or Jane Campion completists, and for fans of Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie, who gives a superb supporting performance as the heroine’s new partner, a pregnant policewoman who’s taller than most basketball players yet carries herself with a wide-eyed, Diane Keaton–esque goofiness. When China Girl shows Christie and Moss walking side-by-side, their extreme height difference evoking the poster for Midnight Cowboy, acing the buddy-cop rituals and somehow talking past each other even when making eye contact, the production nails the tricky balance of tones that otherwise eludes it.

Top of the Lake: China Girl Is a Disappointing Follow-up