Amazon Grapples With Backlash Over Politics and Privilege in Hong Kong-Set Drama Series ‘Expats’

Streamer denies reports that Nicole Kidman left the production early.

Nicole Kidman
Courtesy AACTA

Amazon Studios has denied Hong Kong press reports that Nicole Kidman walked off the production of “Expats” in Hong Kong. Instead, filming is to continue despite ongoing controversy.

“Nicole wrapped as scheduled, she did not leave early. She always had other projects she was committed to. The production is not stalled or on hiatus, it was always going to continue shooting without her,” said an Amazon spokesman in a comment emailed to Variety.

Kidman’s representatives in Australia did not respond to requests for comment.

Hong Kong online news publication HK01 reported Sunday that Kidman and series director Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) had creative differences that led to the disruption. Kidman, the outlet reported, will travel to Australia and then the U.K. to film a part on Warner Bros. film “Aquaman 2,” before possibly returning to the series. Kidman is reprising her role of Atlanna in “Aquaman 2,” Variety has confirmed.

Similar stories were carried by the Hong Kong Standard and the South China Morning Post. Oriental Daily reported that she will play the role of Aquaman’s mother in “Aquaman 2.”

The production of “Expats” has been dogged by various scandals, ranging from the political appropriateness and context of the story, to the quarantine exemption granted to Kidman upon her arrival in Hong Kong. Other cast members include Saraya Blue and Jack Huston.

Since filming began, Hong Kong media have reported that Wang and Kidman argued while filming in a street market. Sources close to the production deny a rift between star and director.

Kidman is an executive producer on the series through her Blossom Films production company and also stars in the show, which is adapted from a Janice Y. K. Lee novel about the privileged lives of a group of expatriate women. Details of her character have not been confirmed by Amazon.

Wang and the series garnered criticism for the show’s focus on the lives of a minority group of rich, mostly Caucasian foreigners. Many of Wang’s social media posts over the summer were also criticized for a perceived sense of entitlement and indifference to Hong Kong’s political context, and claims that she is making an independent movie.

Hong Kong has been in a state of political turmoil for the past two years as mainland Chinese forces attempt to remake the city in their own authoritarian image.

Despite the protests of some two million people who took to the streets in July 2019, the city’s government has introduced a draconian national security law, ejected all but one opposition legislator, remade the education and electoral systems and dismantled teachers’ and other trade unions.

In recent months, the Hong Kong government has also sought to stifle and intimidate the city’s boisterous film industry. On at least two occasions this year, private screenings have been raided by officials. The government is now in the process of introducing a censorship law that prioritizes national security issues.

Local anger about “Expats” burst onto the front pages in August when the Hong Kong government was discovered to have granted Kidman exemption from its strict quarantine regime that has kept residents and other visitors in mandatory hotel lockdowns of two to three weeks.

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language daily, labeled the production “tone deaf.”

International media have found the production similarly distasteful. Time magazine delved into the Kidman-“Expats” saga for a treatise on “white privilege” and cited an example of how Wang’s production had sought to unnecessarily Orientalize a Hong Kong street market by bringing in Chinese props such as lanterns and scrolls.

Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald ran a news analysis piece headlined “How insensitive can she be?: Exiled Hongkongers want to talk to Nicole Kidman.”

And an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review was equally critical. “Mistimed Hong Kong visit a flop for Nicole Kidman,” it said before explaining that “the Australian star’s hotel quarantine exemption in Hong Kong created a media storm this week. But her new TV series about expatriates living in the city raises darker questions.”

The Hong Kong government justified Kidman’s quarantine exemption by claiming that production of the show was for the economic good of the city. It is unclear whether the government has put money into the production or provided a location incentive.

The government said Kidman would be under strict supervision and would have to follow a pre-arranged itinerary at all times to ensure social distancing.

It isn’t clear whether Kidman will be subject to quarantine restrictions upon her arrival in Australia. When she flew into the country in July last year ahead of filming of Hulu series “Nine Perfect Strangers” she caused another row.

While ordinary citizens entering Australia are required to enter a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine system, New South Wales authorities insisted that no rules had been broken when it allowed Kidman to self-isolate and do pre-production at one of her holiday properties near Byron Bay.