' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Top of the Lake: China Girl--Part detective story, part reunion story, all riveting

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Top of the Lake: China Girl--Part detective story, part reunion story, all riveting

Anybody else watch the Top of the Lake: China Girl on Sundance?

It's a detective story, all right, set in Australia, but it turned out to be a who-done-it wrapped around a first/birth mother reunion complete with adoptive mother Nicole Kidman playing the adoptive mother. Already I'm hooked.

The detective story involves a body of an Asian girl which is stuffed in a trunk that washes up on a beach around Sydney; but nearly as soon as that plot line begins we learn that the detective Robin (the talented Elisabeth Moss), is going to the home of the adoptive family of her daughter. In the previous series of Top of the Lake, we'd learned that she had given up a child to be adopted. Robin had been raped on prom night by three guys; she was 16 when the girl was born. The adoptive parents had written her in her native New Zealand, but she did not respond. Now a few years later, she's in Australia, and goes to their home.

Seventeen-year-old daughter Mary (Alice Englert) is rebellious, has a terrible relationship with her adoptive mother (Kidman), and is coincidentally involved with a sinister nut job who's much older than she is and who will be part of the who-done-it.

Knowing that media like this is how the public learns about reunions between first/birth mothers and daughters, I was anxious to see how this would be handled. By the time you get to this point, the adoption story is a plot line as full-blown as the who-done-it. Birth mother Robin had already not responded to reunion when suggested by the adoptive parents years earlier--why should the teenager accept her now? Or did Mary even know about that? I'm thinking of Colin Kaepernick as the moment on screen arrives, Kaepernick of the bended knee who refused to met his natural mother after she had cut off getting pictures when he was a child. What was writer/director Jane Campion going to do with these two characters?

Dear Reader, the reunion scene was superb--but not what you might expect. They meet in a casual restaurant, without tears, big emotions, or long hugs. Daughter Mary is receptive but a tad wary; Mother Robin is anxious, amazed at the wonder of her daughter. Through Robin was unable to handle contact years before, the fact that she is meeting the daughter of a gang rape is noted only in that she cannot tell her daughter who the father is. It was a plus to see this fact not made a huge fuss over--as we sometimes hear "rape" is why sealed birth records of adoptees must stay sealed--but here it is simply part of the backstory; it does not play into her desire to meet her daughter. The lowered intensity of the meeting did not diminish the poignancy of the moment, colored by the awe and wariness of the characters.

There are all kinds of reunions, not just the hearts and flowers and tears type. Consider my weird one with my daughter, who was 15: at the airport in Madison, under the watchful eye of her father. I can see clearly now in my mind's the first moment I laid eyes on my daughter. Lavender crew neck sweater (me in pink crew neck) ; hands in back pocket of her jeans (me hugging her). She had predetermined that pose since she was aware her father would be observing, and later recounting the details to Mom. She told me later she wanted to hug back, but, she knew that would hurt her mother's feelings.

Back to China Girl: The story is so complicated, with other interesting characters, that distilling it here would be like falling down a rabbit hole. The acting is superb, the story has fascinating characters and side plots, many implausible twists but I've had so many in my life that I'm willing to go along for the ride if the drama is well done, and this is. It's intense, dark, and utterly satisfying. I watched it over three or four nights. It is the kind of story that you either find fascinating--as I did--or not.

I give Nicole Kidman credit for playing the less than sympathetic adoptive mother, as she did in Lion. She and Tom Cruise adopted children who are now grown. From what I've read, she has a loose relationship with them, they did go with Tom into Scientology initially after their divorce, and lord knows what's going on with that. I won't fathom a supposition. I read that Kidman went to her daughter's wedding in London a few years ago, and Cruise did not. In China Girl, Kidman as adoptive mother, has a frosty relationship with the daughter, Mary, who wants nearly nothing to do with her--and Kidman's character is not living at home with her husband, but elsewhere with a woman.

Not until the very end do we learn that the Asian girls who inhabit a whore house are actually in Australia to become surrogates for nice white people. They become impregnated with the sperm and fertilized ova of the couples--but whoosh! they fly back to their native country (Thailand, I recall) where they give birth to perfect white babies--not of mixed race--and sell them to anxious couples looking to adopt perfect white infants. The people who contributed the ova and sperm? Hoodwinked. Left out of the picture. They never know what happened to their zygotes. The young women surrogates make more money than they ever could otherwise; they will feed a whole village for a year. Even if they do take on the hazards of childbirth, these women then are not the exploited; the people who have given them their fertilized eggs are the exploited.

Obviously Director Campion is making a statement about the distribution of wealth, and the West's demand for infants, and I applaud her for having the guts to do this so baldly. She showed the other side of child-trafficking. She doesn't condone it; she exposes it. Campion, by the way, is the director who did award-winning movie, The Piano, for which she won an Oscar for best screenplay written directly for film. She's a native New Zealander who now lives in Australia, mirroring the main character, Robin. Don't tell me that having more women writing and directing movies won't give us more stories--more gutsy stories--about women.

Yet at the end, the plot hits a false note as the fractured relationship between Adoptive Mother Julia and Daughter Mary is quickly resolved without much ado--or even a reason--and Mary says something like, You are my mother to Julia/Kidman. What? Where did that come from?

Now birth mother Robin is left out in the cold. She has no happy ending. She met her daughter and they had begun building a relationship, but without explanation that appears kaput. Robin exits the adoptive home with a DVD of her daughter; she's alone in her sparsely furnished apartment; she's going to watch the DVD. The brief affair she's had with the adoptive father (I told you this was complicated) also appears to be over. I'm ready to scream NUTS! when the phone rings....fade out.  (Of course this leaves open the possibility of the series continuing.)

The tidy tying up of the relationship between adoptee and adoptive mother felt like a sop to the adoption lobby and adoptive parents everywhere--Don't worry, even if your daughter has been estranged and you've left her adoptive father for a woman, all will be well in the end. Of course the phone call implies there is some salvation for Robin. Who is that on the line? Mary, her daughter? The likable adoptive father?

Yet you are left with a picture of her as a loner, a good detective but one with a screwed up personal life, unable to make a connection with a partner. Screwed up I can relate to.

I was once that lonely woman in a sparsely furnished apartment with all the charm of a cheap motel room. A first marriage that probably never would have happened. A year-long eating binge. Crying jags, more than I can recount. Uppers, suicidal thoughts, depression, a huge rash on my leg, crazy behavior, a pervasive feeling of worthlessness, a sense I didn't deserve to be treated well in relationships, deep and abiding sorrow. And despite the leveling out of pain that I experienced after finding my Jane, my daughter, that too was followed by knowing her own sorrows and difficulties, and then her end.

But life is a boat that keeps going forward. I've been happily married for more than three decades. We've recently moved into a house that is making our life less financially edgy, and I am enjoying furnishing it with the great finds of modern and deco that I've found at consignment shops, yard sales, old barns, Facebook Market Place, even the Salvation Army. Once we put up my prints on the walls, I began to feel comfortable in this house. I have a wide circle of friends, someone who has become my surrogate daughter, and I don't feel unmoored; I haven't for a long time. Life is good.

I accept my past, and recognize how it formed me, but I, or none of us, need wallow in our grief endlessly. We cannot erase memory, so relinquishment of our children remains a part of who we are, who we become. But life is a boat that goes forward. We do not need to get stuck in its wake.--lorraine

This collection linked to below cannot be viewed in on most Blue-Rays in North America but you can buy separate episodes on Amazon for $3. It's not available on my On Demand at the Sundance channel, where I watched it. Maybe Netflix? If anyone finds it, let us know.

Top of the Lake Collection (Top of the Lake / Top of the Lake: China Girl) [Blu-ray]

The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption and Forced Surrender---,,,"thorough and perceptive analysis how the exploding adoption industry in the decades after World War II herded young women into giving up their babies."--From the back cover, LD. 


  1. I liked "China Girl." I very much like the last paragraph of Lorraine's blog.

  2. Haven't yet seen the movie, but I clicked on the book to order it: thanks for the heads-up on both!

  3. The "sop" to pro-adoption at the end may be because Kidman is an adoptive mother and so is pro-adoption herself. The BIG PROBLEM i have with this is the SURROGATE AS PROFITEER - this is rubbish. The surrogate risks her life and will suffer similar long-term impacts from the losing the child she grew in her womb. To somehow present the surrogates as gaining out of surrgoacy is ANOTHER SOP TO KIDMAN who USED A GESTATIONAL CARRIER herself. Kidman is a baby trader - no matter how much she is trying to quell her guilt by taking on these complext roles on the issue.

  4. What I liked about the surrogates twist at the end was that it was presented as the young women getting the better of the anxious parents who hired them in the first place. Unless surrogacy in intra-family or friend, is exploitative of the women who are so needy they have to sell their bodies. But I didn't see the young women in China Girl as "profiteers," as you state--that implies a large scale system--but as individuals using the system that is in place for their own gain, and not simply being taken advantage of due to poverty or need.

    The overall feeling was that the entire system of using another's body to carry your child is full of inherent risks for everybody concerned-though the risks of pregnancy itself were not highlighted. Kidman using a surrogate was quite kept out of the news--as it was also for Sarah Jessica Parker.

    According to an article in Women's Day, Kidman set up a meeting between her daughter's surrogate recently, as they had never shied away from telling the girl, who is now seven or eight, the truth. I wonder how common that is. The child is biologically related to both Kidman and Urban. What a strange world this is.

  5. I missed "Top of the Lake" and after reading this I decided to start watching the re-broadcast of the first series. As a first mother I'm always interesting in seeing how mothers are portrayed. It is on the Australian national broadcaster (ABC) in the dead of night so unless you're a night-owl PVR is a must or the iView catch-up service. Thanks for the tip, Lorraine. Hope "China Girl" goes free to air soon.



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