Still Human (Hong Kong, 2018) [OAFF 2019]
The city state of Hong Kong has been the setting for big emotions found in heroic bloodshed actioners, crime thrillers, romantic dramas, and martial arts extravaganzas. However, one of the most satisfying films to come out of the place in recent years is a small-scale drama about the friendship between a disabled man and his carer. Still Human is the debut feature film from Oliver Siu Kuen Chan and it has won accolades such as Best New Director at the 2019 Asian Film Awards, the Netpac Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival 2018 and the Audience Award at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2019. With a mixture of assured storytelling and great acting, it provides a moving drama that is sure to win over anyone who watches it. Just keep a hanky ready.
Anthony Wong gives an award-winning performance as Cheung-wing, a paralyzed divorcé who lives alone somewhere in the upper floors of a public housing complex. He is mostly reliant upon others for day-to-day needs after an accident left him unable to move any part of his body beneath his chest. Washing, feeding and clothing himself, everything requires help but despite his situation, or perhaps because of it, he has developed a cantankerous attitude that borders on belligerent and we don’t need to wonder why his previous carers have left his employ. When we first meet him, he is greeting his latest live-in domestic helper, a former nurse named Evelyn (Crisel Consunji). Barking orders might be more accurate as his face exhibits a permafrown, which clearly intimidates his new guardian who simply wants to get on with caregiving.
In an economical use of screen time, within 15 minutes of the title, their daily routine is established. The pasts of both characters are hinted at for further attention later on as are the different worlds inhabited by the carers and those they care for. This is sketched on the screen with Evelyn’s visits to three lively Filipina friends at Statue Square, a place where fellow domestic workers hang out in real life.
As expected, things don’t get off to a great start for the pair, especially as she doesn’t speak any Cantonese. Further conflict of the cultural and personal variety arises as the two get used to living together but so too does the chance for deeper connections as Cheung-wing’s grumpiness, an emotion so hard to maintain, gives ground to teasing and then acceptance and he opens up about life’s hardships. This is to be expected since Evelyn is the only person he talks to regularly apart from his best friend Fai (Sam Lee) and his sometime loyal but bitter-for-a-reason-later-explored younger sister named Jing-ying (Cecilia Yip). The spectres of loneliness and isolation hover around Cheung-wing as he is cut off from family but through Evelyn’s ministrations we see a new side to the man who turns into a caring, if rough, older brother figure.
As Cheung-wing is revealed, mostly through neatly handled flashbacks which dovetail nicely into scenes, so too is Evelyn, who is in quite a predicament with an extremely messy life back in the Philippines. As he learns of her own situation of trying to escape a bad marriage which shackles her to him and has forced her to give up on her passion of photography, he softens up in a movie-like way. More cynical audience members might feel a sense of contrivance in the narrative as people change but the characters are developed and played in a restrained manner and there is always a sharp sense of humour to go with any pathos and this pathos will have a direct line to the empathy of the audience thanks to the acting.
In the face of adversity, Consunji essays a good-hearted person trying their best. She radiates softness and determination very well and this offers a fantastic springboard for Wong who puts in a persuasive performance and gives a real sense of vulnerability and despondency. His physicality is examined through how he cannot move and how this contrasts with his fantasies of being able-bodied. We appreciate the full physicality of the man and everything he has lost in dream sequences that are perfectly contrasted with his reality. There is pleasure in seeing him come back to life and hope again, much like the case with Evelyn and any disappointments and betrayals will rock audience member’s hearts as we want the two to not give up on life or each other, despite the hardships. The film reveals both to be victims of circumstance, which has made them defensive, an emotion that, in both cases, masks their good side. But shared friendship brings out the best in them and gets them to dream once more as Evelyn re-engages with photography and Cheung-wing reconnects with his family.
At times mawkish, Still Human is nonetheless charming as we see trust, friendship, and self-confidence build in the characters before our eyes. Two sincere people, both of whom have had to put their dreams on hold because of circumstances, can dream again and the film will remind audiences that dreaming is important. She may be a domestic worker and he may be disabled, but the two are still human. Seeing them discover and enjoy their shared humanity enriches the screen.
Still Human was shown on March 9 and 14 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.