Sensitive portrayals of foreign domestic helpers and people with physical disability have long been scarce in Hong Kong cinema, but with Still Human
talented new filmmaker Oliver Chan does her bit to gently break down barriers. The story, written and directed by Chan and infused with a breezy humour, sees Evelyn Santos (Crisel Consunji) recruited from the Philippines to work as one of 380,000 live-in foreign domestic helpers in the city. Employing her is Leung Cheong-wing (Anthony Wong), a man paralysed from the chest down and largely confined to his public housing flat, and he seems to be quite the curmudgeon.
Old hands offer Evelyn inside knowledge and tips for the trade – play dumb, says one, and don’t learn Cantonese – yet she’s eager to do her best in the difficult job. For starters, the chores are tough, Cheong-wing seems hard to please and she’s blatantly ripped off in the local market. After she drops Cheong-wing and injures his leg, Evelyn turns to lifting buckets of water as weight training for the physically demanding work. And she makes an effort to learn the local lingo, building a rapport with Cheong-wing that runs on a playful Chinglish dotted with profanity. Evelyn is also a keen photographer, and when Cheong-wing and his loyal friend Fai (Sam Lee) give her a new camera, she feels encouraged to chase a long-held ambition.
As its seasons go by, Still Human creates a vivid portrait of its two lead characters and the relationship between them. Evelyn, a university graduate who’s seeking freedom through a marriage annulment back home, and Cheong-wing, whose ex-wife and student son are living abroad, both hold on to dignity and dreams and come to support one another through ups and downs.
’s core material could have made for a heavy dramatic work, but Oliver Chan has turned in a picture that’s as easily entertaining as it is effortlessly moving. Chan’s mostly low-key approach often pays dividends, not least in Evelyn’s story. Comments reference abuses that get reported in the media (“At least her employer doesn’t hit her,” one friend remarks), yet Evelyn’s tale feels representative of wider experiences. When Cheong-wing’s sister Jing-ying (Cecilia Yip) is cruel to Evelyn, Chan’s screenplay skips ripped-from-the-headlines maltreatment and instead voices common attitudes that could hit close to home for some moviegoers. Scenes of Evelyn’s days off widen the coverage of migrant worker experiences, and parts of the story also echo that of Xyza Cruz Bacani, a pro photographer from the Philippines whose pictures grabbed international attention while she worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper.
Chan, an alumnus of the 2015 Fresh Wave short film competition, made Still Human
after her production proposal, with Fruit Chan on board as producer, won its funding under the government-run First Feature Film Initiative. Like other movies that have come out of the programme, among them Mad World
and Weeds on Fire
(both 2016), the film is a low-budget work that aims high. Quality performances in particular elevate the production. Veteran actor Anthony Wong portrays Cheong-wing with an accomplished mix of everyman style, pathos and sharp humour. And first-time screen actress Crisel Consunji, who trained in stage acting and singing in the Philippines and now runs early childhood education centres in Hong Kong, offers a strong and warm showing alongside him. By the time Still Human
closes with the springtime sight of fibres blowing from cotton trees, their compelling turns help ensure Oliver Chan’s ambitious first feature is not just a barrier-busting work but a deeply involving one at that.