Visit any public place in Hong Kong on a Sunday and you’ll see crowds of Filipino and Indonesian women sitting on cardboard, eating snacks from their home countries and chatting the day away. Meet the nearly 400,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong on their day off.
While the concept of having a live-in domestic helper might seem foreign to most who grew up in the West, it’s a common phenomenon in the relatively wealthy cities of Hong Kong and Singapore — where between 1 in 5 and 1 in 8 households have one. Faced with poverty at home, many Filipino and Indonesian women choose to move abroad for jobs that often pay more than what they could earn at home.
However, conditions for domestic helpers are far from ideal. A combination of racism and classism lead to helpers facing abuses ranging from underpayment of salaries to denying them the mandatory one rest day a week. Recently, a Hong Kong employer fired their maid when she was diagnosed with cancer — denying her medical care, and forcing her to return home to the Philippines.
This sets the context behind Still Human, a film about Evelyn (Crisel Consunji), a Filipino nurse who works as a domestic helper for the disabled former construction worker Leung Cheong-wing (Anthony Wong). The two initially face difficulties getting along, in no small part due to Leung’s lack of English and Evelyn’s lack of Cantonese. They only start getting to know each other when Leung starts learning English to better communicate with Evelyn (and complain about her cleaning), while Evelyn sets her mind on learning Cantonese after being cheated by a local grocery seller.
Aren’t Maids Human Beings?
Being cheated in the wet market is far from the only abuse Evelyn suffers, however. Throughout the film we see Leung’s sister treating Evelyn as sub-human, refusing to let her eat at the dining table (most domestic helpers eat in the kitchen). Evelyn makes friends with a group of other domestic helpers, who relay tales of abuse at the hands of their employers.
Mid-way through the film, Leung discovers Evelyn’s dream to become a photographer — it turns out she only came to work as a domestic helper to escape an abusive marriage (divorce is illegal in the Philippines). Leung’s attitude towards Evelyn starts to take a turn as he tries to help her pursue this dream, buying her a camera and entering her into a photography competition. He even stands up to his sister when she makes a racist remark at Evelyn, asking her incredulously, “aren’t maids human beings?” before reminding her to “have some respect!”
As it turns out, Leung has an unfulfilled dream of his own: to go on a graduation trip with his son. After being paralyzed from the waist down in a work accident, and being divorced by his wife, Leung appears to have given up on life.
In this way, Evelyn and Leung are more alike than different — both of them have dreams that they feel unable to pursue because of different conditions in their lives. Evelyn’s arrival, and the revelation of her dreams, convinces Leung to start turning his life around — starting by helping Evelyn realize her aspirations as a photographer.
In this sense, Still Human isn’t only a story about the abuses and discrimination that domestic helpers suffer — its also a story about two people who were dealt a bad hand in life inspiring and helping each other to pursue their dreams. While the story of a domestic helper and her employer grounds the film in a real-world context, the story and characters are no less relatable for audiences unfamiliar with live-in helpers. Most importantly, the film does not portray Evelyn or Leung as pitiful — instead, it gives both of them a base of empowerment from which they can choose their own destinies, and escape the limitations that social, economic, and physical circumstances have imposed on them.
Still Human shows that gaps in language, culture, gender, age, or social status are not hindrances to forming a connection with someone else. Regardless of one’s background or societal standing — a helper or a disabled man — we are all still human. Still Human humanizes and gives a voice to not only helpers and the disabled, but also people from all walks of life who are often overlooked, dismissed, and stereotyped by society at large.
Jianne Soriano contributed to this story.
Still Human is premiering in the US at CAAMFest 2019. For more information and screening times, visit CAAMFest’s website.
Still Human—Hong Kong. Directed by Oliver Siu Kuen Chan. Running time 1hr 55min. Starring Crisel Consunji and Anthony Chau-Sang Wong.