Regardless of whether you enjoy “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” the provocative title and the series’ racial makeup certainly raise eyebrows. While all the leads of the show are white, the “China girl” herself — the victim of the crime at the center of the story — is a Thai immigrant. That was also true of the first season, which focused on Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a 12-year-old Asian preteen who walks into a lake after discovering she’s pregnant.
There’s certainly a great deal of thematic resonance in the first series and this one, beginning with women immersed in a body of water, a narrative of pregnancy secretly imprinted into their bodies. But in a show that features white stars playing nuanced, marquee roles, is there a deeper meaning to having Asian victims in both installments?
“I think it is purposeful,” co-creator Jane Campion says of the parallel. She spends most of her time living in Sydney but feels dissatisfied with how it has been represented on-screen. “Sydney is a very Asian city as well, and you don’t often see that.”
Campion was especially interested in how Asian women are fetishized by Australian and New Zealander men. “They like Asian women as possibly being more docile: cuter, attractive and more likely to become compliant brides,” she says. “So there’s a habit among certain types of Australian and New Zealand men to go over and get [themselves] an Asian bride.”
She adds, chuckling ruefully, “And then, you know, things don’t always go as well as they hoped. On both sides.”
That sense of hidden depth reflects the dual meanings of “China girl,” of which Robin (Elisabeth Moss) seems fully cognizant. (The term becomes the police operation’s official code name.) It implies fetishized foreignness — as well as fragility. The poster for the season shows Robin, naked from the waist up, with cracks running through her torso — as if she is made of porcelain.
To research “China Girl,” Campion and her team visited Thai brothels in Sydney and interviewed the workers. (Sex work is legal in Australia.) What they learned led the series co-creator to revise her approach to the material. “It’s a very stigmatized profession, and people can be easily hurt,” she says.
But a much larger percentage of sex workers had chosen the industry than she realized. “I found out that [trafficking] was very uncommon, that most people knew exactly what they were going to do,” she says.
The women they met were “extremely open with us,” she reports. “A lot of our dialogue comes straight from their mouths, what they said and how they talked about it.”