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)

Made in Hong Kong (香港製造, Fruit Chan, 1997)

made in HK vertical posterThe Hong Kong of 1997 becomes teenage wasteland for the trio at the centre of Fruit Chan’s urgent yet melancholy debut, Made in Hong Kong (香港製造). Made on a shoestring budget using cast off film and starring then unknowns, Chan’s New Wave inflected meditation on dead end youth is imbued with the sense of endings – illness, suicide, murder, and despair dominate the lives of these young people who ought to be beginning to live but find their paths constantly blocked. The world is changing, but far from possibility the future holds only confusion and anxiety for those left hanging in constant uncertainty.

Autumn Moon (Sam Lee), our narrator, is a boy fighting to become a man but too afraid to leave his adolescence behind even if he knew how. Living alone with his mother (Doris Chow Yan-Wah) after his father abandoned the family, Moon is a high school drop out with no real job who spends his time playing basketball with the neighbourhood kids and running petty errands for small scale Triad Big Brother Wing (Sang Chan). Already indulging in a hero complex, Moon is friends with and the de facto protector of a young man with learning difficulties, Sylvester (Wenders Li), who has been disowned by his birth family and is constantly picked on, beaten up, and molested by the local high schoolers. Taking Sylvester with him on a job one day, Moon runs into Mrs. Lam (Carol Lam Kit-Fong) whose debt he’s supposed to collect but when Sylvester has one of his frequent nosebleeds on seeing Mrs Lam’s beautiful daughter, Ping (Neiky Yim Hui-Chi), Mrs. Lam manages to send them packing. Nevertheless, Sylvester and Moon end up becoming friends with Ping and enjoying the last days of Hong Kong together, engaged in a maudlin exploration of teenage mortality pangs.

As Moon puts it in his voice over, everything starts to go wrong when Sylvester picks up a pair of blood stained letters in the street. They belonged to a high school girl, Susan (Amy Tam Ka-Chuen), who we later find out killed herself from the pain of first love. The spectre of Susan haunts the trio of teens left behind who remain morbidly fascinated with her fate yet also afraid and anxious. Together they pledge to investigate her death and return the letters to their rightful owners as, one assumes, Susan would have wanted. Even so, when they finally track down the recipient of the first letter, the man Susan gave her life for, he barely looks at it and tears her carefully crafted words of heartbreak into a thousand pieces, scattering them to the wind unread.

In investigating Susan’s tragic love affair, Moon and Ping begin to fall in love but Ping too already has the grim spectre of death around her. Seriously ill, Ping is at constant risk if she can’t get a kidney transplant but the list is long and she’s running out of time. Moon wants to be the hero Ping thinks he is, but he’s powerless in the face of such a faceless threat. He makes two decisions – one, to get the money to pay her debt, and two to go on the organ donor’s register so that if anything happens to him, Ping might get his kidney, struggling to do something even if it won’t really help.

Powerlessness is the force defines Moon’s life as he adopts a kind of breezy passivity to mask the fact that he has no real agency. He says he doesn’t want to join the Triads full-time because he values his independence, prefers making his own decisions, and hates taking orders but he rarely makes decisions of his own and when he does they tend not to be good ones. Moon drifts into a life of petty gangsterism partly out of a lack of other options, and partly out of laziness. Abandoned by his father and then later by his mother too, Moon’s only real source of guidance is the minor Triad boss Big Brother Wing who, unlike his mother, at least pretends to trust and respect him. Getting hold of a gun, Moon dances around like some movie vigilante drunk on power and possibility but once again fails in the hero stakes when a friend comes to him in desperate need for help but he’s so busy playing the cool dude alone in his apartment that he doesn’t even hear him over the music.

When it comes to pulling a trigger, Moon can’t do it, no matter how many times he’s visualised the moment and seen himself making the precision kill like an ice cold hitman in a stylish thriller. Moon’s illusion of his heroic righteousness crumbles. He couldn’t save his friends, has been rejected by his family, and has lost all hope for a meaningful future. As if to underline the hopelessness and fatalism of his times, Fruit Chan ends on a radio broadcast which instructs the lister to say the same thing again, only this time in Mandarin – the language of the future. Moon, Sylvester, and Ping are all cast adrift in this dying world, abandoned by parental figures and left to face their uncertain futures all alone. As a portrait of youthful alienation and despair, Made in Hong is a timeless parable in which an indifferent society eats its young, but it’s also the story of a Hong Kong Holden Caulfield standing in for his nation as they both find themselves approaching an unbreachable threshold with no bridge in sight.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Trailer for the 4K restoration which premiered at the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017 (English subtitles)

Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Ann Hui, 2017)

our time will come posterFor Ann Hui, the personal has always been political, but in the war torn Hong Kong of the mid-1940s, it has never been more true. Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Míng Yuè Jǐ Shí Yǒu) was pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai film festival though it was permitted a screening at a later date. At first glance it might be hard to see what might be objectionable in the story of the resistance movement against the Japanese, but given that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British colonial rule to mainland China, there is an obvious subtext. Yet, at heart, Hui’s film is one of resilience and longing in which “see you after the victory” becomes a kind of talisman, both prayer and pleasantry, as the weary warriors prepare for a better future they themselves do not expect to see.

In 1942, school teacher “Miss Fong” Lan (Zhou Xun) lives with her mother (Deanie Ip), a landlady who rents out her upstairs room to none other than Lan’s favourite poet, Mao Dun (Guo Tao). Lan also has a boyfriend, Gam-wing (Wallace Huo), who proposes marriage to her and then announces his intention to leave town. Not really interested in marrying someone who is already leaving her, Lan ends things on a slightly sour note but her refusal is more than just practicality – she wants something more out of life than being an absent man’s wife. Mrs. Fong is an expert in finding out things she isn’t supposed to know (a true landlady skill) and so has figured out that her lodgers are looking to move on. Mao Dun is supposed to make contact with notorious rebel Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng) who will guarantee passage out of Hong Kong for himself and his wife. Unfortunately, he is a little late and a Japanese spy turns up just at the wrong time. Luckily, Lau arrives and solves the problem but a sudden curfew means he can’t complete his mission – which is where Lan comes in. Lau entrusts the group of intellectuals to Lan, instructing her to guide them to a typhoon shelter where another contact will meet them.

This first brush with the business of rebellion provides the kind of excitement Lan has been looking for. Impressed with her handling of the mission, Lau returns and offers Lan a permanent place in his movement as part of a new urban cohort. Her life will be dangerous and difficult, but Lan does not need to think about it for very long. Her mother, ever vigilant, frets and worries, reminding her that this kind of work is “best left to men” but Lan is undeterred. Ironically enough, Lan has never felt more free than when resisting Japanese oppression with its nightly crawls accompanied by noisy drumming looking for the area’s vulnerable young girls. Mrs. Fong blows out the candles and moves away from the windows, but Lan can’t help leaning out for a closer look.

Hui keeps the acts of oppression largely off screen – the late night crawls are heard through the Fongs’ windows with Mrs. Fong’s worried but resigned reaction very much in focus. The schools have been closed and rationing is in full force, but most people are just trying to keep their heads down and survive. The local Japanese commander, Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase), is a figure of conflicted nobility who quotes Japanese poetry and has a rather world weary attitude to his difficult position but when he discovers he’s been betrayed by someone he regarded as a friend, the pain is personal, not political.

Yamaguchi tries and fails to generate an easy camaraderie with his colleague, but the atmosphere among the rebels is noticeably warm. Lan becomes a gifted soldier and strategist but she never loses her humanity – embracing wounded comrades and caring for the children who often carry their messages. When Lan discovers that someone close to her has been captured and is being held by the Japanese she enlists the help of Lau who is willing to do everything he can for her, but coming to the conclusion the mission is impossible Lan’s pain is palpable as she wrestles with the correct strategic decision of leaving her friends behind rather than compromise the entire operation. What exists between Lan and Lau is not exactly a “romance”, the times don’t quite permit it, but a deferred connection between two people with deep respect for each other and a knowledge that their mission is long and their lives short.

Hui bookends the film with a black and white framing sequence in which she also features interviewing survivors of the resistance movement including an elderly version of the young boy, Ben, who is still driving a taxi to get by even at his advanced age. Ben is a symbol of hidden everyday heroes from the pharmacists who treated wounded soldiers, and the old ladies who cooked and provided shelter, to the resistance fighters who risked their lives in more overt ways, who then went back to living ordinary lives “after the victory”. The film’s final images seem to imply that Hong Kong’s time has come, that perhaps the eras of being passed, mute, from one master to another may be nearing an end but the time is not yet at hand, all that remains is to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)