We’ve had some heavyweight crime offerings this year – Broadchurch, Twin Peaks, Fargo et al – but perhaps the most eagerly awaited returning crime drama in this house is Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake, now subtitled China Girl for its second series. Series one was just utterly wonderful – a dream-like procedural the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Elisabeth Moss (who’s been doing some tremendous work recently) returns as Robin Griffin, the Australian detective, who has now returned to her home city, where the body of an Asian sex worker is waiting for her. Judging by this series opener, it’s great to have it back.
This magnificent opener starts in sinister, silent fashion. In a pokey, humid kitchen a Chinese woman begins to prepare food for two men, both half naked (suggesting suffocating heat) and both greasy and swarthy-looking. One of the men motions to the other man and nods towards a case in the corner. He goes over and locks it properly. The next we see of it, one of the men and the Chinese woman is pushing the heavy case – with difficulty – over the edge of an outcrop of rock and into the ocean. We surmise that this case is filled with a human body.
It’s a sinister start, filmed in typical Top Of The Lake style – quietly, subtly and without too much fuss. The key difference here is space: where the first series set its story in the wide open, epic spaces of the New Zealand wilderness (and, subsequently, the story had this special, spatial quality, revelling in it and using it wisely), already we were in the heart of the city, in small, claustrophobic rooms, with people and artificial light and heat. And, subsequently, the atmosphere felt instantly different.
And then we meet Robin Griffin again. She’s back in Sydney – only two weeks, we soon find out, after the trauma of New Zealand – and she’s having a hard time. She’s taking a training session with a bunch of unruly and insolent recruits with one rookie, in particular, challenging her authority with comments that had poisonous, misogynist undercurrents. Robin reacted badly and was ticked off by her benevolent boss Adrian (who had come to work with painted fingernails and had a giant fluffy panda sitting behind his desk). Robin did not want to talk about her ordeal in New Zealand. At all. Adrian tried to probe deeper and deeper, but Robin was having none of it.
There were other things on Robin’s mind. She was not only recovering from the breakdown of her relationship with Johnno Mitchum and the catastrophe with Al Parker, her long-lost daughter was now weighing heavily on her mind. This was the daughter she had to give up when she was young, and the daughter that now lived in Sydney and had written her a letter when she was a child. With so much emptiness in her life Robin treasured this letter, and as her world around her crumbled (her masseur, ex-junkie brother kicked her out of his apartment), this obsession turned into mild psychosis and night terrors.
Elsewhere, we saw one the men in the apartment. His name was Puss (David Dencik) and he was Eastern European of extraction, gruff but obviously extremely intelligent. He met a young teenage girl after school – a 17-year-old named Mary – and it turned out she was his girlfriend. Puss lived in a brothel, which featured sex workers from China and, more likely, Hong Kong, and who loved listening to him talk and teach them English. The sex workers were fantastic characters, scantily clad but fully-rounded human beings, laughing and joking about English words and, especially, sex words. Their interaction with Puss was fun, funny and endearing… but you knew in the back of your mind that Puss was involved with The Suitcase and had an air of menace about him. When the sex workers asked him about one their friend, Cinnamon, who had gone missing, he frantically covered.
But more on Mary. She was astonishingly precocious, intelligent and the type of teenager who would drive you mad. We met her parents, such an absolute embodiment of the affluent, middle-class couple you might have thought Campion was lampooning this type. There was easy-going Pyke (Ewen Leslie) who was very proud of his new paella dish and the flaky Julia (Nicole Kidman in brilliant, wild-haired form). She had recently left him for another woman, and Mary didn’t let him or her – especially her – forget it. Their interaction was at once hilarious and wince-inducing, every sentence ending in some sort of argument. When Puss came round to meet them and have a fancy dinner with them this combination was ratcheted up to new levels of brilliance and dysfunction. Puss, with his fiery revolutionary theories, clashed with Julia’s feminist, liberal ways – Julia went to England to study under Germaine Greer, she harrumphed; Puss believed that the essence of man was to enslave women. Uh oh. It was just incredible writing, incredible acting and a brilliant scene. The worst dinner party I’ve seen on television since Abigail’s Party (actually there was one in series one of Doctor Foster that pretty awful, but you get my point).
Add to this little lot Gwendoline Christie’s hilarious, lovely Constable Miranda Hilmarson, who was always trying so, so hard to impress Robin, who she had been paired with; and a group of single, dweeby men who gathered in a local cafe to discuss and rate the sex workers they had recently hired (one of these young men had developed an ill-advised and delusional ‘relationship’ with Cinnamon, who he had hired for a GFE) and you had a set of characters that were never less than intriguing.
So we had a lot of things and characters going on and, like series one, they were all quirky and with quirks, all interacting with each other with varying levels of success. The dialogue and the writing was just a level above what we’re used to, and it was a joy to watch.
But every now and again the scenes with these new characters were punctuated with eerie sequences of the suitcase drifting in the ocean, strands of human hair floating out of the cracks in calm, deep waters. At last, the suitcase came to rest on Bondi and, at the end of the episode, Robin saw her next obsession – a young Chinese sex worker – bundled inside. Like Tui before she was found, she was someone missing without a name or an identity. Someone forgotten by society.
Robin’s chasing a ghost again.
If the rest of the series is as good as this opener, we’re in for an absolute treat.
For all our news and reviews of Top Of The Lake, go here