A peculiarly Hong Kong phenomenon – crowds of Filipina domestic helpers filling the city streets on a Sunday, for many of them their one and only day off in an often 24/7 job. The presence of the Filipina workers has often been a taboo subject, as has the frequently inhumane treatment they receive from exploitative employers, but Hong Kong cinema has been in a self-reflective mood of late as Oliver Chan’s Still Human (淪落人) proves. A quiet ode to the power of breaking down barriers and embracing difference, Chan’s bold debut centres itself on the unlikely friendship between a disabled man and his Filpina carer.
Cheong-wing (Anthony Wong) has been paralysed from the chest down for the past few years following a construction site accident. Though he has enough movement in his hands to be able to get himself about with an electric wheelchair, he needs day to day help with essential tasks such as cleaning and washing not to mention getting himself from the chair to the bed. His last few carers have all abruptly left him in the lurch so he doesn’t have high hopes for the latest – Evelyn (Crisel Consunji), a former nurse from the Philippines recruited by Cheong-wing’s friend Fai (Sam Lee). Cheong-wing is irritated to discover that Evelyn speaks no Cantonese while he has almost no grasp of English but is encouraged to make it work because he needs help and, according to Fai, none of the Cantonese-speaking carers is prepared to help him.
From Cheong-wing’s earliest behaviour, it might seem obvious why he has such a high turn over of helpers and one wouldn’t blame Evelyn for walking out right away but then again, perhaps he is only grumpy because he’s lonely and sick of everyone suddenly abandoning him. A solitary pensioner, Cheong-wing lives alone in a high rise council flat. His wife left him years ago and remarried while his medical student son is away in the US. On the ground he only has Fai – a slightly younger man who acts as a surrogate child in gratitude for the various ways Cheong-wing once looked after him when he arrived as teenager from the Mainland with no Cantonese and no family to help him.
Meanwhile, Evelyn tries to adjust to her new life, having made peace with her decision but making the best of a suboptimal situation. Scrimping and saving, she tries to get the funds together to definitively escape a bad marriage against the wishes of her family who constantly beg her for money and guilt her into doing their bidding. Making friends with some other helpers via a Facebook group, she joins the regular Sunday gatherings but feels herself somewhat out of place even as she begins to bond with the already jaded veteran overseas workers. Play dumb, they tell her. Don’t learn Cantonese, or do but don’t let your employer know. All that matters is not getting fired and sent back to the Philippines so keep your head down and say yes sir while always looking for a better gig or, best of all, a wealthy husband. Evelyn ignores most of their advice. She isn’t interested in another loveless marriage, what she wants is her freedom.
Nevertheless she continues to endure xenophobic micro-aggressions and constant mistrust despite her warm and winning personality. Cheong-wing, teaching her Cantonese, eventually begins to bond with Evelyn, convinced that she is a “good person” though maybe, like him, going through some tough times. Interacting with Evelyn allows his sweet side come through, making plain that he is at heart a kind and sincere man but one who had long since given up on life and kept others at a distance believing himself to be a burden. Where the traditional family has failed, found family plugs the gap as Cheong-wing and Evelyn pick up an easy paternal rapport, supporting each other with genuine warmth and affection as Cheong-wing discovers Evelyn’s long buried dream of becoming a photographer and commits to helping her achieve it all while knowing it will eventually take her away from him.
Realising that where there’s life there’s hope, the pair come to the conclusion that it’s never too late to dream and each find themselves edging towards what it is they really want from life with the confidence of knowing someone has their back and their best interests at heart. A warm and empathetic yet uncompromising look at life on the margins of modern Hong Kong, Still Human is a beautifully humane tribute to the healing power of human connection and the joy of finding kindred spirit in unexpected places.
Still Human was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. The film will also receive a special one off screening in Chicago courtesy of Asian Pop-Up Cinema on Monday 13th May at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 8pm where director Oliver Chan and actress Crisel Consunji will be present for a Q&A.
Original trailer (English subtitles)