The story of a middle-aged man that remained paralysed after an accident at a construction site and his new Filipino helper can be pretty much summed-up into a paraphrase on Descartes`s most famous quote, “I dream, therefore I am.”
Winner of the 3rd First Film Initiative (Higher Education Institution Group), „Still Human“ written and directed by Oliver Chan Siu Kuen is yet another of the Hong Kong films that demonstrate not only the interest to remind of forgotten or invisible people of the region, but also the skill to do so without excessive drama and emotional blackmail. It is especially admirable when one takes into account that the premise of “Still Human” just invites for a slide into cheesy melodrama pond.
Leung Cheong-Wing (Anthony Wong) is a middle-aged man who, due to an accident, is now paralyzed from the chest down. His wife and son left him and now live their own lives in the United States, enjoying a new life in with a new husband and (step) father included. Cheong-Wing is fully dependent on the help of others. Also, and here I can totally relate, cockroaches freak him out. Evelyn Santos (Crisel Consunji) came to Hong Kong because unlike dreams, real life cannot wait. Thus she is putting her dream of becoming a photographer aside and now makes her living as Cheong-Wing`s new aid and maid.
They start off cautiously, both trying to keep their relation professional, motivated by the pure need to survive and also by a will to not to allow the other to take advantage of the other’s disability – being it actual or social. Slowly but surely, they both drop their safeguards, showing that where there is a will to understand the other, there is also a way.
“Still Human” effectively employs well written supporting characters, and boldly exploits the most common stereotypes or prejudices to create a more vivid picture of the two main characters and of the groups they represent. Step by step, season by season, it allows us to peak not only into the present living of the two main characters but reveals enough on their past.
Chan’s script balances out the reality of the socially invisible humans, their everyday fights, be it with gravity or language, with some witty sense of humour. Thanks to cheeky traits of the main characters, “Still Human” manages to show compassion without pitying them. Besides, more than a critique of unequal or abusive treatment, the film opts the way of positive examples. Instead of pillorying people for their choice of turning a blind eye or even abusive attitude towards disabled or foreigners (especially women economic migrants), it offers images of coping with such attitudes with understanding and with a little help of your friends. Basically, “Still Human” turns the story of pushed away people into a sort of buddy movie about two people who didn’t do much more than seeing a human in each other and felt it as a little miracle.
It is pleasure to see that Chan as the scriptwriter does not underestimate Chan as the film director, nor does she take the audience for halfwits. She is not afraid to break information about the character(s) or event(s) into smaller pieces and distribute them timely, to complete it in the just moment, to set the right emotion. Chan the director (and editor) then keeps the scenes and leads the actors in this very sense, but does not fall into any kind of rigidness. On the contrary, she avoids it by smart editing, intertextual drops and yes, she is not afraid to go directions Cinderella or even cheesier, and make it work.
“Sill Human” parades a very good cast too. It is not only Anthony Wong and Crisel Consunji who are very just and who feel very natural in their expressions, making it easy to connect with the story and the stories within. The acting of all the protagonists seems to be under the “there is nothing like a small role” idea, and the gust and understanding of the character and its role in the story is just pleasing the senses. No matter whether we talk of well-known Hong Kong actor Cecilia Yip in one tricky role or ageless Sam Lee, who is much more than a reminder of Fruit Chan in the seat of the producer (and in a food stall owner cameo), or Wong Ting-Him, or of the Filipinas in the City: Loma, Ann and Rhea portrayed by Lucy Navarrete Valenzuela, Xyza Cada and Marie Cornelio.
“Still Human” looks like a small story on the outside, but as more and more films by young and young but not that young Hong Kong film-makers, it offers a look into a flavourful world. A world that is very Hong Kong and yet feels (sadly?) very familiar. Furthermore, it is a joy to watch as a piece of very good and thoughtful film-making.
PS: On a side note, among her other activities, Crisel Consunji co-founded Baumhaus Creative Arts Family centres in Hong Kong (www.criselconsunji.com)