A grumpy pensioner and his maid form an unlikely friendship in Oliver Chan’s comedy-drama.
“But even at the most fragile moments, don’t forget: We can be very strong.”
Hong Kong’s culture of domestic help is something of a touchy and contentious topic. In recent years, cases against employers and the practise as a whole has been examined by human rights groups, who have found that in many cases there is little difference between this and slavery. It’s not a difficult stance to take: after all, many maids are paid poorly, and made to work far more than any laws allow, and some have it even worse. Despite this, the practise is still popular, with almost 5% of Hong Kong’s population being domestics in some form or another.
So it was always going to be tricky to tell this story, that of the paralyzed and forlorn man named Cheong-wing (Anthony Wong), who lives alone in a tiny council flat in Hong Kong. His worsening attitude has cost him a few maids (considering the gig pays little, is in a tiny apartment and requires a lot of difficult work). And when the naïve, fresh-faced Evelyn (Crisel Consunji) turns up to work for him, there’s no reason for him to have hope. Evelyn ignore the ‘advice’ from fellow maids, as her hopefulness, friendliness and determination begins to affect Cheong-wing for the best.
This movie is a real tear jerker, and it knows it to an almost manipulative degree. From the cutesy moments of bonding to the real emotional sweeps, this is a movie that knows how to target your heartstrings and really pull on them. What stops it from being too over the top and schmaltzy is that writer-director Oliver Chan manages to find legitimate humanity within its two leads. Evelyn and Cheong-wing are both flawed in realistic ways, and they’re so human that it’s impossible to not relate in any way to them. And also: I’m not made of stone. I don’t care how manufactured the drama is. Their growing friendship feels genuine and that’s really all that matters.
Its flaws are pretty obvious but they’re never enough to negatively affect the experience of watching it and are cushioned between moments of real sincerity and great humour. Still Human takes a look at the relationship between Hong Kongers and the often-Filipino maids they hire. It doesn’t have a tonne to say (nor does it pretend to be a film about this), instead using the premise more for its emotional potential than anything else but it’s certainly trying.
And in this regard it does a decent job. We’re treated to stories of other experiences from Evelyn’s friends as they meet every Sunday in the cardboard and plastic mats of Little Manila. To anyone who’s been to Hong Kong, this is a normal (and at first quite bizarre) sight, so it’s quite cool to see these gatherings from the point of view of the domestics. It’s from these workers that we get a real idea of the lives they tend to lead, which is a topic that certainly needs a light shone upon it, and will hopefully open up the conversation more.
But like I said above, this movie is about a friendship, and it’s about dreams of all sizes. Through each other, these two characters grow and find hope in these lives they were giving up on. There’s an overarching theme of finding freedom, from your own self-doubt, from your past, and your own limitations. Both Evelyn and Cheong-wing are able to break through their own limits thanks to the lessons and trust they’ve gained from each other. The clichés are there, as is the predictability, but who cares: these two people are so well-defined and likeable in their own ways that the emotion always shines through. Cheong-wing isn’t a typical deadbeat dad – he’s supportive, but just has given up on himself – and Evelyn isn’t just a wide-eyed child – she’s stubborn and clever – and the characters feel a lot more real.
And this is largely down to the impeccable performances from Anthony Wong and Crisel Consunji, who nail their respective roles. We are completely sold on their growth, and although the script and cinematography takes a lot of credit, it’s really in the subtle changes in their performances that we see this. I want to give props to Sam Lee as Cheong-wing’s friend Cheung whose supportive role works as the perfect catalyst to a lot of the action. In fact, it’s really only the clumsy handling of Cheong-wing’s sister (Cecilia Yip) that I have a problem with. She’s miserable and angry in all of her scenes, with basically no depth. But she’s also not in it for long so it doesn’t matter. Still Human might rely on tried and true tropes and character archetypes, but it does it extremely competently. Ultimately, it delivers a hopeful, touching story that will leave no eye in the house dry.
Verdict: Filled with countless sweet moments and a truly excellent duo, Still Human is beautiful, if a little rote.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Sex: Now that would have been a different movie
Languages: The mixing of English and Cantonese was very charming
Cameos: Fruit Chan makes one
Fook: If you turn the fook, the fook will come
Still Human (2018)
Also known as: 淪落人
Director: Oliver Chan
Writer: Oliver Chan
Anthony Wong – Leung Cheong-wing
Crisel Consunji – Evelyn Santos
Sam Lee – Cheung Fai
Cecilia Yip – Leung Jing-ying
Himmy Ting-him Wong – Wang
Fruit Chan – Keung
Lucy Valenzuela – Loma
Xyza Cada – Ann
Marie M Cornelio – Rhea
Vinia Pamplona – Carmen
Myriam Khadraoui – Cassamdra
Wong So-fun – Cheong-wing’s ex wife
Lei Han – Wang