Shockingly similar to both Les Intouchables and its Americanized remake The Upside, Oliver Siu Kuen Chan’s Still Human is an empathetic social-realist drama with a welcome sense of humor. It is also numbingly familiar, rife with cliches, and it contains one of the worst musical scores of recent memory, seemingly determined to bludgeon the audience into forced emotional catharsis. Cheong-Wing Leung (played by the great Anthony Wong) is a disabled man living in public housing in Hong Kong. He has just been assigned a new domestic helper, a Filipino woman named Evelyn (newcomer Crisel Consunji, who gives a winning performance here). Of course, they are an odd couple at first, replete with language barrier jokes and Wong really leaning into wide-eyed, exasperated guffaws at how “stupid” his helper is.
Chan does some interesting work in these early scenes, the camera emphasizing the cramped, claustrophobic confines of Cheong-Wing’s small apartment. Evelyn is constantly cramming herself into the frame, a fine visual metaphor for her awkward intrusion into Cheong-Wing’s life. Chan also deploys closeups sparingly, saving them for maximum impact and using them to link Cheong-Wing and Evelyn visually — they are both prisoners of a sort. But for every interesting choice on display here, there’s another that rankles, from pat observations about the meaning of life to a constant barrage of platitudes about following one’s dreams. There are a couple of hamfisted dream sequences, and an egregiously lame ending that you can see coming from a mile away. Worst of all, despite the relative uniqueness of a Hong Kong film willing to really delve into the domestic helper situation (there’s something like 400,000 foreign workers there, subjected to virulent racism and few if any employment rights), a variation of the dreaded ‘white savior’ trope rears its ugly head. Here, Evelyn is allowed to become a fully actualized human being — thanks to the altruistic benevolence of a man. Still Human has its heart in the right place, but good intentions aren’t enough.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2019.