Drifting (濁水漂流, Jun Li, 2021)

“It’s just a bigger prison out there anyway” a prisoner tells his jailer surprised by his lack of enthusiasm for “freedom”. Following transgender drama Tracey, Jun Li continues his exploration of the marginalised citizens of contemporary Hong Kong with Drifting (濁水漂流), in this case the growing numbers of the unhoused who find themselves unfairly victimised by an increasingly authoritarian regime all while the city’s famous housing problem sprouts new blocks of luxury condos daily further displacing those without the means to live in them. 

Released from prison Fai (Francis Ng Chun-yu) has nowhere else to go but back to the streets where he is welcomed by a ritualistic shot of heroin gifted by street godfather Master (Tse Kwan-ho), a refugee from Vietnam occupying a liminal status neither able to leave or remain owing to a criminal conviction which prevents his asylum in this or any other country. Fai’s attempts to rebuild his life are however frustrated when the community he is a part of falls victim to “street cleaning” in which uniformed officers turn up without warning to move them on, taking what little possessions they have and disposing of them as rubbish. This proves too much of an indignity for Fai who, along with the others and the help of social worker Ms Ho (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan), launches a law suit against the city both for damages against their stolen property and for an apology for the way in which they have been treated. 

“I am homeless. I am not worthless” runs the chant the small band of protestors recites outside the offices of government, but it’s a feeling that many of them find hard to internalise. Shing (Chu Pak-hong), a long time drug user, is originally afraid of the lawsuit because of the shame of people finding out about his drug use, relenting only when reminded he can file anonymously and thereafter wearing a medical mask just to be sure he can’t be identified. Fai, by contrast, agrees to be the face of the campaign but is frustrated by the approach of the media who, he feels, are not truly interested in publicising his case only in his “sob story” which he refuses to give them. Time and again, the homeless community is exploited by well-meaning do-gooders including a large number of students who either patronise them with ironic tasks or romanticise the homeless “experience”. 

Social worker Ms Ho is the only one who genuinely tries to help but even she finds her interventions sometimes cause more harm than good. While a friend of Fai’s darkly comments that her wheelchair gives her an advantage applying for public housing, Fai struggles to see a future for himself on the streets lamenting that no one’s going to hire him anyway and explaining that his drug use is a self-destructive way of killing time in an attempt to escape the boredom and despair of his futile existence. During the court case, he voluntarily enters rehab to try and come off drugs but also finds himself suffering with a serious illness for which he is afraid to get treatment because “hospitals are not a place for the living”. 

Echoing Fai’s distaste for the fetishisation of poverty, Li offers only sparse details of what brought these men and women to the streets save that many of them have been imprisoned which gives them a healthy scepticism when it comes to dealing with the justice system. Offered a settlement, most of the community want to accept but Fai is minded to hold out. The money is not so important to him, he’s replaced the things he needs, what he wants is his dignity in being given a proper apology and an acknowledgement as a human being. “Where can poor people live?” he asks, peering from the scaffolding on a half-completed luxury condo building witnessing gentrification in action as it towers over a slum knowing that its presence only means more “street cleaning” while people like him are pushed further into the margins, continually displaced by an economic prosperity to which they are not invited. “No one can save anyone” Fai finds himself admitting, the solidarity of the homeless community eventually shattered by their conflicting goals even as they continue to care for each other as best they can. Anchored by a standout performance from Francis Ng Chun-yu as the weary, defeated Fai battling his own traumas in addition to those of the world around him, Drifting paints a bleak picture of an increasingly unequal society seemingly content to abandon its most vulnerable citizens to the vagaries of a marginal existence. 


Drifting screens at the BFI Southbank on 15th July as the opening night gala of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Still Human (淪落人, Oliver Chan Siu-kuen, 2018)

Still human posterA 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)