|Elisabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie and the director Jane Campion on the set of “Top of the Lake: China Girl|
‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’: Jane Campion on Her ‘Ovarian’ Series
This interview contains spoilers for the entire season of “Top of the Lake: China Girl.”
The legality of prostitution and commercial surrogacy, the exploitation of women involved in both — in the end, “Top of the Lake: China Girl” explored those issues more than it explored the crime that opened the series. By the final two episodes on Tuesday, the central investigation of this six-part installment had gotten murkier and murkier, as the conflicts of interest compounded for detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) and her partner, Miranda Hilmarson (Gwendoline Christie). But this series from the filmmaker Jane Campion was more about poetic imagery and gender politics than it was about police work. Ms. Campion explained her take on those issues, the input sex workers had on the story and the series finale.
You’ve described the show as being beyond feminism, as something “ovarian.” What do you mean by that?
It’s actually something I thought about a lot when I was writing it and making it. I wanted to go deep into the uterus of a woman, and really tell the story from that point of view, from creation to appropriation. It was always in my mind that the ocean is the major uterus of the whole thing. It’s a feminine space. It’s controlled by the moon and the tides, and I love all that. I don’t know how much it’s affected how the story communicates to people, but it’s there in my heart.
Both “Top of the Lake” and “Top of the Lake: China Girl” are about pregnant Asian girls who end up submerged to one extent or the other.
Oh, yes. That was very much in my mind. Tui, in “Top of the Lake,” she’s the daughter of Matt Mitcham, and she’s the result of Matt getting what he hoped would be a woman who would do what he wanted, an Asian bride, Tui’s mother. And these Asian girls at the brothel come from very poor backgrounds, where there is not a lot of choice there. It’s a common thing for some men who find women to be too difficult, to get what they hope will be a submissive woman. It doesn’t really work out that way, because they aren’t that submissive. But it is one of the things that always irritated me, this fetishized ideal of women. They think these women will listen to them and not speak much. They think Asian women are more petite, more beautiful, more feminine than us big white women. [Laughs] Which is, of course, slightly annoying, but also slightly ridiculous.
Throughout the series, you had a villain-like character espousing feminist rhetoric. And then it turns out that the supposed nice guy of the prostitute-rating crew, the one who prefers the “girlfriend experience” —
Ends up shooting everyone. [Laughs.] What inspired me was this really great documentary by Kitty Green about Pussy Riot and the Femen activist movement in Russia, called “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel.” And what she exposed was that behind the girls’ actions was a man — Victor Svyatski — and when she interviewed him to find out how it was all operating, he said the reason he wanted to do it was to meet women. [Laughs.] He was actually the feminist behind the whole thing!
Puss says Cinnamon wasn’t murdered, that she hanged herself. Should we accept that?
We don’t know if she hanged herself. Puss is an unreliable witness. It may or may not be true. But our Romeo being in love with Cinnamon, that wasn’t of much use to her. He was delusional. To him, it was his imagination taking him to a different level, when they had conversations about holidays or whatnot. To her, it was probably nothing. I just based the cafe nerds on art school guys who do go to brothels, who were kind enough to be honest about their experiences, and not very gross in the way that the people who write the prostitute reviews were.
It’s a mixture of grossness and sadness. They seem to be seeking connecting and intimacy, but not feeling very confident that anyone would love them, or even like them. It’s part of the human struggle to want sex, but they wanted more than that. They would even talk about spooning with the girls afterward. But their reviews are as graphic as you can imagine, including the size of what their breasts are, whether they’re real or not. And the parking! [Laughs.] Whether the parking is free.
That’s one thing that results from prostitution being legalized — a subculture of people who review the service and nitpick about the parking. You included a sex workers’ advocate character, so did you talk to the Scarlet Alliance? How did that change the story?
We tried to give respect to a lot of different viewpoints. We realized that a lot of our original thoughts about it weren’t really borne out. One thought was that more women would have been cheated into coming from Thailand to come and work in the sex and hospitality industry, and we didn’t find that to be true. It’s very rare, actually. People do know what they’re coming for. But everyone pushes the boundary, and they probably do more than their 20 hours of allowed work. I don’t know. It’s tough as a woman to get into a brothel and talk to sex workers! [Laughs.] But we found a brothel that was willing to have us come in and ask questions, and they helped us do the workshops for the brothel scenes. We based our set on their shop, as they call it. We probably spent more time in the brothel than the police station!
The world is such an extraordinarily crazy place, it’s really hard to understand the rules. Why are things legal or illegal in different places? Why is marijuana illegal? Why is alcohol legal? It’s pretty arbitrary in many ways. To me, it’s really brilliant that sex work is legal in Australia. They’ve proved it’s a lot safer for the women and their clients. The women get health checks much more often than the regular population, and they have a lower STD rate. And I think it should be legal everywhere, actually. It’s not going to go away. It’s been here forever!
What about surrogacy? The exploitation in the show isn’t because of the prostitution, but rather this illegal commercial surrogacy ring.
I’m curious as to where this all leads. From an economic point of view, people with privilege and money can buy or rent the body parts of other people. I guess I’m just trying to bring focus and attention not only to the rights of the people wanting to have the babies, but the babies themselves. There was a couple in Australia who got themselves a surrogate in Thailand, and the woman had twins, and they only wanted one of the twins because the other had Down syndrome. “I don’t like that one.” These people felt like they could pick and choose. It really closed down the surrogacy business in Thailand, because people felt like you can’t trade in human beings this way. There was a Japanese guy who wanted to have 20 babies at once, as a sort of frightening experiment. It’s a complex issue, and you have a lot of unregulated situations in countries with a lot of poverty, because the women will sign up. They’ll do anything to feed their families.
How difficult was it to get HBO to let you borrow Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman?
We really did have a fight on our hands with HBO to release Gwendoline to our series, because they were quite jealous, you know. These aren’t actors, these are slaves. They’re not to go anywhere else! They can’t have a life outside of “Game of Thrones”!
I wrote a big, sobbing, begging letter to them saying, “I don’t think my letter is going to do much, but ...” and I told Gwendoline, “You better begin your campaign.” And she did. She told them that she needed this role to evolve as an actress, and if they didn’t release her, she was coming to Los Angeles to sit outside their offices. And if that didn’t work, she would sit outside their houses. I think they just went, “O.K.” Nicole didn’t have that same problem. And I can’t claim that Nicole needed the help to evolve, although the role is a reminder of her extraordinary comedic capacity. We tried to make her look as bad as possible, which was pretty hard. We gave her a bump on the nose, teeth that stuck out, freckles, and she still looked amazing.