Top of the Lake: China Girl DVD review

by Toby Woollaston

topIt is the first question on everyone’s lips when enquiring about season two of any TV production; How does it compare to the first?  The exceptionally good True Detective, (which tonally shares a lot with the Top of the Lake) suffered the dreaded fate of the season-two-blues. Its initial overwhelming success seeming to shackle writer/director Nic Pizzolatto with unreasonable expectations and crippling time constraints for a follow-up of equal quality. 

Unfortunately, expectations tend to grow legs over time—as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, I’ve become very fond of Top of the Lake’s first season so was bound for disappointment.

Thankfully, my pessimism was unfounded because despite it lacking the narrative purpose and visual poetry of season one, Top of the Lake: China Girl is, for the most part, a solid production. This season is a lot more introspective in scope than the former and elects to explore the seedier internal wilderness of urban life and the devils within. Comprising of six episodes, it picks up five years after the devastating events that took place in New Zealand.

Having returned to Sydney where her estranged daughter lives, Detective Robin Griffen (Elizabeth Moss) uncovers a dark connection between the murder of a prostitute and her own troubled past. She reconnects with her daughter whom she had previously given up for adoption (the result of a teenage pregnancy—information we were privy to in season one).  In a wicked twist of fate, Robin begins to discover that her personal life and the case she is working on are intertwined. 

China Girl’s tenuous plot is tethered together through some deft writing that distracts you from the implausibility of it all. Writer/Director Jane Campion has a penchant for telling women-centric stories and here she successfully mixes an intimate personal drama with a wider story arch. Like a leaky sewer pipe China Girl drips with male sexual oppression and counterbalances this with a level of female rage appropriate to our current age of feminine resurgence. It is a white-hot example of Campion’s modus operandi, and is wonderful to behold her feminist approach to filmmaking. 

Visually, series two isn’t quite as indulgent as its predecessor and lacks its graceful purpose.  This is partly due to the location, but also a change in cinematographer, from Adam Arkapaw’s (who, coincidentally worked on True Detective season one) fawning New Zealand landscapes to Germain McMicking’s grittier urban Sydney.  The change in visual style is the first thing you’ll notice and China Girl feels a lot more cop-procedural than season one.

The DVD offers six short bonus features that explore behind the camera, its locations, interviews with Campion and her cohorts and other ephemera. Although they are interesting, they are too short to offer much depth.  The DVD set contains two discs with three episodes on each (optional subtitles included).  Each episode is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 and uses a 1.78:1 screen ratio.

DVD hits shelves Thursday 27th June. 

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.