Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Top of the Lake (China Girl)

Top of the Lake is the name for two mini-series detective shows written and directed by Jane Campion.  The first series, set in New Zealand, but featuring a tormented female detective, was released 2013 -- that show was extraordinary for a couple of reasons:  the New Zealand landscapes were ineffably beautiful and surreal and the show's actors, mostly unknown to American audiences were memorably superb.  (Less effective, perhaps, was the show's somewhat tendentious and didactic feminism; the program explored a toxic "rape culture" in Australia and New Zealand.)  The second series, available on Sundance, is not as surprising as the first venture and, if anything, even more prone to high-pitched preaching -- but the program has its pleasures, particularly with respect to the show's arch-villain, the loathsome "Puss" Alexander.  The second mini-series takes place in Sydney, Australia, and, with some exceptions, eschews the spectacular nature photography characteristic of the New Zealand programs.  It's less exotic and more morose, it seems, and has something of the character of the BBC programs featuring Kenneth Branagh as the dyspeptic and sorrowful Swedish detective, Wallander.  In terms of its production values, the show is similar in appearance to the various lavishly mounted crime series that the BBC broadcasts -- it looks a bit like the Wallander shows or the Inspector Lewis series.  The principal, defining difference is the strongly feminist themes that motivate Campion's work.

The first Top of the Lake was about bullying -- the show featured, as counterparts, two memorable bullies.  Holly Hunter played the leader of a commune of damaged women: she embodied the spooky, grey-haired, hag earth-mother aspects of certain would-be female shamans -- as the matriarch of a group of women, many of them cavorting about naked in the New Zealand wilderness, Hunter's character was memorably strange and menacing.  Her adversary was a gorilla-like male thug, the alpha leading an extended family group hunkered down in a compound on the other side of the lake.  This guy was the male equivalent to Holly Hunter's estrogen-laced female shaman, a savage bully who terrorizes his sons, maintains a harem of subservient women, and rapes his own 12 year old daughter.  The show explored ways in which men and women assert coercive power over others and it featured startling and horrific shows of sheer physical force and violence.  The second Top of the Lake has only one really alarming villain, but this guy is so awful that he is "one for the ages" -- "Puss" Alexander.  "Puss" rules by weakness -- he has a borderline personality and he manipulates others by feigning suicide attempts, hunger strikes and, generally, moping around behind the locked door of the brothel that he seems to be sponsoring.  If Top of the Lake 2013 was about the way that men dominate women by sheer threats of violence and physical bullying, the second series is about something quite different -- it shows how a weak man manipulates women (and others) by dramatizing weakness.  "Puss" purports to be damaged by his upbringing in Communist East Germany -- he mouths shrewd paradoxes and nasty aphorisms.  He claims to be a disgraced PH.D candidate from the University of Leipzig -- he is hirsute, physically slight, and walks with a shambling sort of shuffle; he always looks more than a little dirty and his teeth are grey.  (There's an inside joke here:  it seems clear to me that "Puss" is modeled, at least in appearance and some of his ideas, on Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian "cultural critic" and professor from the University of Llubyana back in the Old Country; "Puss" mutters the same kind of glib, profound-sounding nonsense for which Zizek is famous.)  Puss is so bad that he orders his teenage girlfriend to become a prostitute in his brothel and, when the other hookers rebel, refusing to allow the upper middle class girl to turn tricks with them, he puts her out on the street to give blow-jobs of johns under a sinister-looking viaduct.  When the detective heroine gets too close to him, he bites off her nose -- don't worry, they sew it back on again.  Incredibly, no one prosecutes this guy for all the mayhem that he commits.  (This is one of the show's glaring defects -- one would think that the "Puss" would be in big legal trouble for biting a lady detective; but, for some inexplicable reason, no one arrests him for this infraction.)  Puss is the reason to watch this show -- otherwise, it's pretty routine stuff, but I have to admit that the program stirs the audience's blood-lust.  I haven't seen the two final episodes, but assume that "Puss" is punished in some kind of hair-raising way for his bad deeds -- at least, I hope so.

The plot involves a Thai prostitute acting as surrogate mother who has been murdered and set afloat in a suit case.  There's lots of unsavory stuff about rape and prostitution, true to Jane Campion's agenda to explore "rape culture."  Unfortunately, the plot is rife with ridiculous coincidences.  The little girl that "Puss" has groomed to be a prostitute turns out to be the heroine's long lost daughter.  Nicole Kidman is wasted as the little girl's foster mother.  All of the men are portrayed, almost universally, as either self-satisfied rapists, swine, or wholly feckless hypocrites.  The show feature a group of young college kids, all of them boys who rate prostitutes on a program like Face-Book.  They behave in ways wholly alien to any kind of human nature and seem to exist to amplify the point that all men are intrinsically pigs.  Everyone hits on the rather homely heroine (she looks like a depressed hare) as if she were Cyd Charisse and these men use nothing but vulgarities in their hapless attempts to win her affections.  About half-way through the show, I was muttering imprecations at Jane Campion and her tedious, lurid exposes of the savagery of men.  But that's not the point of the show -- "Puss" is the reason to watch and he's reason enough. 

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