Still Human (Lun lok yan)
Hong Kong (2018) Dir. Oliver Siu Kuen Chan
Cultural differences are one of the more fascinating things in life. Through cinema, TV, and the arts, we get to learn about the rest of the world, the people, and their unique ways But have you ever learned about yourself through being with someone from a culture entirely different to your own?
Paralysed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair, cantankerous pensioner Cheong-Wing Leung (Anthony Wong) greets his newest domestic helper, Evelyn Santos (Crisel Consunji), a former nurse from the Philippines. With neither able to speak each other’s language and only a few words in English getting through, the early period of this working relationship is a testy one, not in the least due to Cheong-Wing’s gruffness.
Over time, this frostiness begins to thaw, with Evelyn learning Cantonese and Cheong-Wing learning English the lines of communication improve greatly and they start to trust one another. When Cheong-Wing learns Evelyn actually wants to be a photographer, he buys her an expensive camera to help her fulfil her dreams and make something of her life but Evelyn starts to feel too attached to Cheong-Wing.
From an initial glance at the plot, one could be forgiven for thinking this is a Hong Kong remake of the French feel good hit Untouchable though this is soon revealed to be merely superficial. Look more closely and elements of Ann Hui’s A Simple Life can be found in the DNA of Oliver Siu Kuen Chan’s debut film though again this is still more in passing than integral to the story.
The plot for Still Human is “touching melodrama 101” in its construction but that doesn’t make it any less a well-crafted, poignant tale of acceptance sacrifice and the importance of having dreams. Ultimately it is about people being defined by who they are and not what they are or where they are from. Siu chooses two distinct social tropes to make her point – the disabled senior and the immigrant worker.
Unlike Untouchable Cheong-Wing isn’t a millionaire, living in a bijou public housing apartment in what can hardly be called luxury – he might have a pot but he needs help to pee in it. Due to an accident on a building site, the once active Cheong-Wing lives along with regular help from young neighbour Fai (Sam Lee) and occasional visits from his grumpy younger sister Jing-ying (Cecilia Yip).
Evelyn, it is established quite early on, is the latest in a long line of live-in maids, most of who have fled Cheong-Wing’s demanding and brusque tyranny within two months, hence his initial distrust that Evelyn will be any different. Disheartened by the near squalid conditions, Evelyn soldiers on with her new, exhausting daily routine tending to her infirmed employer, keeping herself to herself in the process.
Via Facebook, Evelyn meets up with other Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, who give her bad advice to help her avoid being exploited in her job – act dumb, don’t learn Cantonese and never get too attached to your employer. Of course, they break these rules themselves but they also work for middle class families in bigger houses for better pay, so they can afford to.
Interestingly, the issue of how immigrants are perceived in Hong Kong becomes a minor point of discussion. They talk as if they are within their rights to take their employers for a ride for being seen as exploited cheap labour at the bottom of the caste system. Later in the film, they all buy glam dresses for a night out then return them to the shop for a refund as a metaphoric middle finger to the system.
For Evelyn, she finds her experience differing wildly as Cheong-Wing begins to learn and understand her, eventually seeing her more than just hired help. He realises she has so much more to offer the world through her photography and goes out of his way to help her fulfil her potential, even if it means letting her go after finally appreciating her
Quite often, the idea of a maid being the lowest life achievement becomes a leitmotif of sorts for whenever Jing-ying frowns upon the bond formed between master and servant, as if she was channelling Downton Abbey, balking at the idea of Evelyn eating at the same table as her brother despite Cheong-Wing’s protestations that as they live together, such boundaries are meaningless.
Cheong-Wing’s journey as a patron of sorts for Evelyn comes at a personal rice, not of his dignity or the disapproval of others, but at losing the one person who opened his eyes to possibilities available to those who have the passion and talent. Whilst his son is in the US with his mother getting a University degree, Evelyn might be a surrogate for Cheong-Wing being unable to support his son physically, but the rewards are the same.
Anthony Wong is, as ever, pitch perfect in this role, showing a tender side to the man who has many crime thriller credits to his name, but still has that irascible edge to him. Being wheelchair bound and dependant makes him look helpless for once, but his mind and mouth are still in full working order. One can feel Wong is getting as much out of this Cheong-Wing does.
But Wong provides only half the magic as the chemistry he creates with newcomer Crisel Consunji is simply divine to watch. One of the brightest acting discoveries of recent years, Consunji delivers a natural and effervescent performance despite being mostly dowdily dressed. The scene where Evelyn and Cheong-Wing laugh while she washes his hair is wonderfully poetic and nothing feels forced, like Consunji herself.
Oliver Siu Kuen Chan also shows promise as a director with this assured debut, which may rely heavily on genre formulae but remains a deeply engaging and delightfully life-affirming essay-cum-living photographic composition. Still Human is unabashedly a feel good movie but one that has something to say, and does so with conviction, charm, and gusto.