When Jennifer Salke first took the reins of Amazon Studios back in February 2018, she was excited at the prospect of building a platform known for “truly diverse, global storytelling”, she said in an interview with Elle.
But as the entertainment industry has come to see with the #MeToo Movement, taking a top-level job is never “just a job”: Salke was also faced with turning around the public perception after her predecessor, Roy Price, stepped down at the revelation of sexual harassment claims and questionable ties to Harvey Weinstein. As bad press swirled around the streaming giant, many came to wonder whether Price’s questionable behavior impacted the studio’s programming as well.
Now with Salke at the helm, this was all set to change. In a 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the former NBC Entertainment president outlined three objectives for herself: to improve company culture, to turn the studio into a magnet for top-tier filmmakers and creators, and to deliver enough high-quality shows to make Netflix sweat.
By the summer of 2018, Salke was shaking things up with a slew of orders for diversity-driven projects from the industry’s best writer-producers. At Salke’s first public appearance as head of Amazon Studio, she announced the development of a new drama series, based on an adaptation of a book by an Asian female author, featuring female protagonists, directed by an Asian American woman, and produced by a female executive producer.
The Expatriates, by Hong Kong-born author Janice Y.K Lee, follows the lives of a group of American women navigating expat life in the 852. Lee, who is ethnically Korean, was raised in Hong Kong, moving to the US at age 15 before attending university at Harvard. After graduating, she pursued a magazine career in New York but ultimately relocated back to Hong Kong where she began her literary career. In 2016, she published The Expatriates, which was met with international acclaim, with accolades from Oprah’s Book Club and a four-month run on the New York Times bestseller list.
Now Lee’s novel is being made into an Amazon original drama series called Expats, in a joint collaboration between Amazon Studios and Nicole Kidman’s production company, Blossom Films. Kidman tapped filmmaker Lulu Wang, director of the breakout hit The Farewell, who will serve as writer, director and executive producer of what will be her first television project. Australian screenwriter Alice Bell will also write the script with Lee serving as a consulting producer. On the acting side, actress Ji-young Yoo, of Netflix’s popular series, Sweet Home, has just been announced to join playing the character of Mercy, a New York transplant exploring the vibrancy of life in Hong Kong.
Wang says Kidman came to her directly for The Expats. “I was incredibly grateful. It was pretty early in the summer, right after [The Farewell] had been released,” Wang recalls. “She saw the film and loved it.” Kidman was intent on having Wang on board, telling her, “‘You’re the only director I can see doing this. You have to do it.’”
“It’s an incredible book,” Wang shared in an interview last year with IndieWire about the premise of Expats being set in Hong Kong. “It’s such a vivid world that we haven’t seen before, and I’ve always been interested in doing something as an American in Asia, ‘cause [sic] that’s usually my experience, and I studied abroad there and everything so, yea, it explores this idea of what it means to be American, what identity is.”
With both her first and second features being shot completely outside of the US (The Farewell was primarily based in Changchun), Wang is now adjusting to not only the demands of filming in an environment where she is an outsider, but also to the constraints — and demands — of COVID. Acknowledging this has, at times, has created some friction among those who would otherwise be her potential target audience.
Some have not warmed to the idea of Wang, who has never lived in Hong Kong as an expat, telling the story of HK expat life, particularly while perceiving Wang as categorising the 2019 protests as a challenge to the filmmaking process.
And beyond this, some are even less taken by the original premise of the book, or more plainly put, another piece of art about upwardly mobile non-locals:
While Hong Kong’s own expat community, and the diaspora by extension, contends with their feelings about the film, so far the production is checking off Salke’s list: it’s women-led, and has the potential to be a hitmaker.
“The story weaves an addictive tapestry that follows a group of complex women and their lives as outsiders in Hong Kong,” Salke said about the project when it was first announced in 2018. “It’s a compelling exploration of the strength of these women as they persevere through struggles with marriage, career, parenting and unimaginable loss.” Given the initially mixed reception within Hong Kong and the diaspora, it seems the Internet and the box office will have the final say.
Stay tuned for more Hashtag Legend updates on Expats.