Content warning: rape.
Top of the Lake was one of those bewitching discoveries that I think you can only make late at night. The DVD had been an impulse buy and, like most of my impulse buys, had been sitting on my shelf forlornly unwatched for several months. But with the threat of an incoming deadline I naturally decided to start a new TV series.
The first series followed detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss, Queen of Acting)’s return to her hometown, Lake Top on New Zealand’s South Island. Robin is soon swept up in the investigation into the rape and later disappearance of Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), the twelve year old pregnant daughter of the local kingpin. I was completely absorbed. From the haunting image of mist drifting around Tui’s submerged body in the first episode to Holly Hunter’s GJ’s disappearance amongst the mountains in the final episode the series beautifully explored female identity in the face of trauma. While Jane Campion has resisted being referred to as a feminist filmmaker in the past, Top of the Lake is undoubtedly her most feminist work to date. It not only directly explores women’s roles within institutionalised misogyny but also represents women as being fundamentally bonded by their womanhood.
“Oh fuck, this is gonna be painful”, sighs Detective Sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham) when he learns a female detective has been brought in. And it is. From the moment she steps into Lake Top’s police station Robin must fight to be taken seriously by the apathetic male police officers, as well as combat the violent masculine presence of crime family boss Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) and his thuggish sons. We eventually learn that Robin herself was gang-raped as a teenager, resulting in a pregnancy, and her fight for justice for Tui becomes a search for her own identity post-trauma. In feeling “so angry for her” Robin is angry for the lack of justice for Tui, the lack of justice for herself, and by extension the lack of justice for every woman and girl abused by men.
Robin and Tui are united and both triumph against patriarchal violence: Tui against Matt and Robin against Al. The revelation that Al has been drugging and selling local children to other men for sex personifies the notion of misogyny as a threat hidden within the establishment. For me this emphasis on female connection and support in the face of abuse embedded within society cements the series as feminist.
Top of the Lake: China Girl finds Robin back in Sydney several years later. She investigates the murder of a Thai sex worker nicknamed “Cinnamon” (Thien Huong Thi Nguyen) whose corpse washes ashore in a suitcase. Still haunted by the Tui Mitcham case, Robin is reluctantly partnered up with the slightly puppyish Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) and uncovers the illegal surrogate business that the Sydney upper middle class is turning to. Her investigation becomes entangled with her finally meeting the daughter she gave up for adoption as a teenager. Now a stubborn and reckless seventeen year old, Mary (Alice Englert) is in a relationship with the incredibly unpleasant Alexander (David Dencik), at least twenty years her senior. He just so happens to own the building where the brothel where Cinnamon worked is.
While the first series had me almost immediately enraptured Top of the Lake: China Girl is perhaps more complex, or perhaps more muddled.
China Girl continues to explore female subjectivity and the roles of women within a patriarchal society. For instance, once again Robin is frequently a lone female voice in her work environment and is persistently harassed by a male colleague’s unwanted romantic attention. Miranda is ridiculed for her lack of conventional femininity and can’t help but defiantly take up space as a 6ft tall female police officer. However, while she is initially a funny character whose admiration for Robin is endearing she soon dissolves into a slightly ridiculous, highly emotional caricature. Robin’s open hostility towards her is eventually resolved but it was incredibly frustrating to spend so much time with two female characters at each other’s throats, especially when one so idolised the other. Similarly, while Robin’s daughter Mary is perhaps a semi-realistic portrayal of a teenage girl struggling with her sense of self it was difficult to sympathise with her as she professed her love for the violently misogynistic Alexander and lashed out against her adoptive mother Julia (Nicole Kidman). In episode one Alexander hurls demeaning, sexist language at Julia who faces up to him. After asserting that she “hates feminism” Mary then berates Julia for “flirting” with her boyfriend. Shocked, Julia replies “I’m not flirting, I’m crying”. In the final episode, The Battle of the Mothers, they reconcile as Robin struggles with her maternal feelings towards Mary who is presented a little like a prize to be won. In this battle, no one appears to win or lose.
Primarily, China Girl explores the nature of motherhood. What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to be an adoptive mother and what does it mean to choose to give up your child? What does it mean to be a surrogate and what does it mean to use another woman as a surrogate? These are thorny, complex questions that in typical Campion style remain very much unanswered. Robin’s conflict with the other two “mothers”, Julia the adoptive mother and Miranda who is using a surrogate might raise some of them but the issues felt underdeveloped and there was no real emotional resolution.
Surrogacy was at the root of the mystery and yet the Asian sex workers illegally used as surrogates by upper middle class white families are not permitted to be protagonists. Campion seems to have a problematic fascination with Asian women and consistently frames them as victims. Tui Mitcham from the first series was half Thai and when the monstrous Al Parker returns to confront Robin he suddenly has an Asian wife and children. While I don’t mean to equate sex work with victimhood the Asian women sex workers in China Girl are manipulated by Alexander and terrorised by a teenage gunman obsessed with Cinnamon.
The title of the series itself feels misjudged. “China Girl” is obviously a play on words that highlights the nationality of the victim as well as evoking the image of Robin as a vulnerable porcelain doll. But Cinnamon, the murder victim, is Thai, not Chinese. It also feels fundamentally wrong to frame Robin, a white woman, as the “China Girl”. Her shared identity with Tui felt truthful as they had shared the same trauma and of course turned out to be half sisters. While Robin was in some sense a surrogate, equating her experiences with Cinnamon, a character we only see as a corpse or as the erotic fantasy as the aforementioned gunman, is questionable. While Campion appears to have visited Sydney brothels and interviewed Asian sex workers it feels exploitative to have utilised this narrative and yet not allow these women to be the subjects of their own narratives. Tui may have been used a metaphor for Robin’s lost self but she destroys Matt, survives Al and has a chance to heal. Poor Cinnamon remains a corpse in a suitcase, her face and identity eroded by the water. It’s not her story, and it never will be.
Alexander proclaims to Julia’s ire that “the destiny of man is to enslave women”, while also claiming that he is a feminist. This frustrating, contradictory conversation, Campion’s most explicit engagement with feminism, perhaps epitomises my response to China Girl. By the end of the series and the thoroughly underwhelming wrapping up of the mystery I really didn’t know what to think, except that I hadn’t really emotionally connected with any of it. While the first series was just as grim in tone, it was balanced by offbeat humour and by Robin’s genuinely moving mission to save a lost little girl and in doing so save herself. I found watching China Girl dispiriting as Robin, who has been such a strong defender of women, and the daughter who is a key element of her identity both behave so cruelly to other women while Cinnamon remained a blank canvas. Unlike the first series which could’ve (and quite frankly, should’ve) ended the story definitively, China Girl does end with an almost cliffhanger so perhaps Jane Campion will return to Robin’s story. However, somewhere between uprooting from eerily beautiful Lake Top to the underbelly of Sydney Top of the Lake lost its eerie atmosphere, lost its focus on female subjectivity and support, and perhaps lost its heart.