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Jane Campion explores the 'secret world of motherhood' in 'Top of the Lake: China Girl'

Jane Campion knows as well as anyone the desperate longing to become a mother — as she puts it, the “battlefield of dashed hopes and dreams” — presented by infertility.

As her career was flying high in the early 1990s, the filmmaker suffered a series of miscarriages. Her haunting period piece “The Piano,” about a deaf-mute woman in 19th century New Zealand, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993, becoming the first film directed by a woman to do so. Shortly afterward, she gave birth to a son, Jasper, who died 11 days later.

“I thought it was going to kill me,” Campion, 63, recalled recently, a tremble in her voice. “But it also made me know who I really was in terms of what pain is.”

Campion has channeled some of that trauma into “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” co-written with Gerard Lee and directed by Campion and Ariel Kleiman. The New Zealand native describes the series, premiering Sunday on Sundance, as an exploration of “the secret world of motherhood.”

“As a woman, sometimes you think that everything to do with your reproductive life is boring and not interesting to anybody because nobody ever talks about it,” says the filmmaker, her distinctive silver mane in a low ponytail. “But the lives of squirrels are actually really interesting. So maybe ours are too?”

A followup to 2013’s acclaimed “Top of the Lake,” the series picks up four years later in Sydney, Australia, where police detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) has relocated following a broken engagement. When the mutilated body of a young Asian woman washes ashore in a suitcase, Robin’s investigation leads into both Sydney’s legal brothels and its illegal market for surrogate mothers.

Along the way, she also reunites with Mary (Alice Englert), the daughter she gave up for adoption many years earlier, now a petulant 17-year-old constantly at odds with her adoptive mother, Julia (Nicole Kidman). Just as the first season of “Top of the Lake” used the disappearance of a young girl in a remote New Zealand town to explore themes of rape culture and toxic masculinity, “Top of the Lake: China Girl” is about the desperate lengths people will go to in order to have children, and the sometimes equally tormented reality of being a parent.

Adding a layer of resonance to the series is the fact that Englert, 23, who previously starred in Sally Potter’s film “Ginger & Rosa,” also happens to be Campion’s daughter, born the year after her son’s death. “I was also very scared it wouldn't work out,” remembers Campion of her birth. “However, when she did arrive I held her up and she gave a big Leo scream and I thought, ‘Oh, my god, she's here to stay.”

Though she offered the role to her daughter because she believed in her abilities as an actress, Campion also calls it “a bit of a gift — or you hope it’s a gift, anyway.” Despite her trailblazing résumé — she’s one of only four women nominated for a best director Oscar — and fearless filmmaking style, Campion is endearingly open about her insecurities. “Later when we finished it, I suddenly went, ‘Oh, my god, what if she had not been good? It would have been … awful! That's the challenge of filmmaking, you're so often on that precipice, just risking your life to get to that top rock.”

Englert’s character, Mary, is involved in an unhealthy relationship with a much older man. Most of her more difficult scenes were directed by Kleiman.

“That was strategic, because Mum knew that she didn't want to feel concerned that she might be holding back or making it feel safer or less visceral because of her being my mother,” explains Englert, in a separate interview. “Funnily enough, though, she would turn up on set.”

(Says Campion: “I just went there to be supportive, but she was, like, ‘Shut up!’ ”)

Campion is a director who appears to inspire loyalty in her actors — even the ones she’s not related to. In an email, Moss describes her as “a true actor’s director.”

“Working with Jane I liken to either to a warm bath when you are cold or a cold one when you are hot ... she adapts to be there for you in that specific moment and knowing exactly what you will need,” she writes. “It's not work with Jane. The thing she says most often to me is ‘this is your floor baby’ or ‘this is your stage, just do your thing’ and that trust is so invaluable.” (Their work together on “Top of the Lake” may not be over; Campion says she sees the story as a triptych.)

The series also reunites Campion with Kidman, who starred in her 1996 adaptation of “The Portrait of a Lady.” Campion, who says she was keen to see Kidman take on a pricklier, more absurd character, wooed the actress by beefing up the part and giving her an eccentric look — freckles, prosthetic teeth and a wild gray wig inspired by the artist Kiki Smith.

“We've seen her be extremely vulnerable and hurt, but we never see her being, like … out there, thinking she's amazing, flinging her sword all over the joint and doing a lot of damage,” Campion says. (She also notes that Kidman has given birth, adopted and used a surrogate and calls her “brave” for taking on the material.)

Campion believes that her interest in portraying such challenging, unconventional women has been an obstacle in the past. She says her erotic thriller “In the Cut” was panned by “a wall of male critics” because it was “about women talking rudely about men.” She contrasts its reception with the accolades for Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” (“a story about a gorgeous young woman hanging out with an old guy”) and her own 2009 film “Bright Star” (“about a girl who's completely devoted to her man”).

As a sympathetic look at sex workers, surrogates and women traumatized by infertility, “China Girl” is yet another provocation. Campion and her team spent time with employees at a Sydney brothel, paying them for their time and input. She also drew inspiration from real-life controversies involving Australian families who’d hired Thai surrogates. In contrast to the United States, where surrogacy is increasingly commonplace and accepted, the practice is generally illegal in Australia.

“That’s why they get so desperate,” Campion says. “We all know what criminals we become for our children.”

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