'Still Human': Film Review
Writer-director Oliver Siu Kuen Chan’s Hong Kong-set dramedy offers a glimpse of the challenges facing overseas workers serving as domestic help for the city’s better-off residents.
Suggesting a working-class take on the 2011 French box office hit Intouchables (soon to be released stateside as the remake The Upside), Still Human transposes the account of a contentious relationship between a disabled employer and his newly hired help from swanky Paris settings to Hong Kong’s modest public housing projects.
Frankly sentimental and sometimes outright implausible, Oliver Siu Kuen Chan’s feature debut nonetheless charms with winning performances from Hong Kong vet Anthony Wong (Infernal Affairs) and Filipina newcomer Crisel Consunji, assuring further attention on the international festival circuit, if not another redo.
An attractive former nurse approaching her mid-30s, Evelyn (Consunji) arrives in Hong Kong from the Philippines in response to an employment ad seeking a caregiver for irascible middle-aged pensioner Leung (Wong). Living alone and confined to a wheelchair, he needs frequent assistance with eating, bathing and getting around after the abrupt departure of his former Filipina maid. The two get off to a rocky start when he discovers that Evelyn doesn’t speak Cantonese and they’re forced to communicate in imperfect English, with Leung using a mobile phone app to translate his often acerbic text entries into spoken commands.
In the early going, Chan’s script smoothly introduces escalating conflict between the two, with Leung frequently nitpicking over Evelyn’s cleaning skills and complaining about her cooking to his best friend Fai (Sam Lee), who is relieved to turn the caregiving over to Evelyn. Leung’s family, including his cranky younger sister Jing-ying (Cecilia Yip), pretty much ignore him unless they’re somehow forced to interact, as in an awkward Lunar New Year’s lunch scene at Leung’s cramped apartment.
Evelyn quickly settles into her new role as a domestic, eager to earn a salary to send back home to her family and pay exorbitant attorney’s fees for the annulment of her marriage to an abusive husband. Leung remains disgruntled, however, despite Evelyn’s conscientious caregiving and assiduous attempts to lighten his mood, frequently revisiting bitter memories of the random construction accident that crippled him. Things turn around once he discovers Evelyn’s dream of becoming a photographer and Leung begins to soften up, inexplicably determined to support her artistic ambitions.
Leung’s sudden about-face in his treatment of Evelyn represents the narrative’s obvious weak point. So it’s to Wong’s credit that he makes it halfway plausible, gradually shifting Leung’s attitude from antipathy to empathy as he realizes that Evelyn is just as trapped by her situation as he is. For her part, Consunji endows Evelyn with a relatable blend of vulnerability and determination as a woman convinced that her circumstances should not dictate her fate.
Although Still Human plays out as a gently amusing dramedy, Chan excels at portraying the often precarious lives of overseas Filipino workers with compassion and insight, gracing them with the humanity and dignity they’re often denied in real life.
Production companies: No Ceiling Film, Create HK
Cast: Anthony Wong, Crisel Consunji, Sam Lee, Cecilia Yip
Director-writer: Oliver Siu Kuen Chan
Producer: Fruit Chan
Director of photography: Derek Siu
Costume designer: Colla Ng, Lim Chung Man
Editor: Oliver Siu Kuen Chan
Music: Austin Chau
Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival