Top of the Lake: China Girl ★★½


(Although I don't rate television, this was screening in its entirety at Cannes, so I'm cheating a little.)

I got a bit of flak for my lukewarm review of the first Top of the Lake series, largely because I suggested that writer-director Jane Campion's depiction of hyper-misogyny was so aggressively overt as to sacrifice any claim to real-world critique. That is, Top of the Lake tended to adopt the outward trappings of realism for a diegetic world that was as lopsided against women as The Handmaid's Tale, with women raped, murdered, and propositioned with absolute impunity.

Several women responded to my review by saying that I clearly had no idea just how hateful the world was toward women, and that Top of the Lake was a fairly realistic depiction of the struggle of women to so much as exist under rabid patriarchy. In the end, I have to contend that -- of course -- I cannot know exactly how misogynistic the world is, certainly not from first-hand experience. As a man, I am completely shielded from those horrors.

Still, I think that Campion tends to use woman-hating as a kind of abstraction, a way to raise the issue of gender inequality through exaggeration. If there were a shred of humor in Top of the Lake, we could consider it satire, but it's more like a grotesquery of anti-feminist sentiment. To my eyes, this aspect of the series is even more pronounced in China Girl, Top of the Lake's second six-episode arc.

The trouble here is not that characters behave in ways that beggar belief or fly in the face of basic logic, although there are rampant examples of this in China Girl. Mary (Alice Englert), a white, upper-middle-class girl, subjects herself to the attentions of a repugnant Eurotrash scumbag (David Dencik), and she refuses to snap out of her obsession well past the point of incurring extreme abuse. She behaves as someone who had been taught from an early age that she has no worth, whereas it is clear that her parents (Nicole Kidman and Ewen Leslie) have done quite the opposite.

The fact that this allows China Girl to foreground the plight of a white girl in the midst of what is ostensibly a consideration of Australian colonialism, and the complex situation of Korean and Thai sex workers, is a major blunder. While Top of the Lake tangentially shows these women as having some degree of agency and identity within the sex trade, that representation is overpowered by the affect devoted to the white nuclear family and Mary's need to separate herself from Puss the whoremaster. She, and the show, give lip service to wanting to regard the Asian women as equals, but cannot really do it.

And then there is the situation of Det. Robin Griffith (Elisabeth Moss), who leads the investigation into the dead body washed up on the shore, who is eventually traced back to the brothel. Everyone in her police squad seems to think they should have total sexual access to her at all times, treating her like a rare and curious Smurfette in a realm of horny Smurfs. Robin's inability to detach herself from these human barnacles results in Top of the Lake's most flagrant example of implausibility, Robin's unwilling confrontation by her now-paraplegic rapist (David Wenham) from the previous season. Unwilling to use her superior ambulatory capability to evade this man, Robin finds herself nearly choked to death. It seems no amount of infirmity can halt the super-power of patriarchal rage.

Top of the Lake has as much to say about feminism as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has to impart about the confectionary industry. Campion is a serious auteur and yet television seems to bring out her inner hack.