Like the well-worn path of other films that have come before it, Still Human has a peak scene that bonds its two characters from different walks of life in a exchange of shared vulnerability and empathy. Newcomer Crisel Consunji’s Filipino caretaker Evelyn carries the tender heart to help and heal the person across from them who is filled with hate and hurt. That broken and cantankerous man, inside and out, is the wheelchair-bound Leung played by Infernal Affairs veteran Anthony Wong Chau-sang. In a touching and tearful outpouring, Evelyn declares “you can’t choose not to be in a wheelchair, but you can choose how to sit in it.”
Those lines are a screenwriter’s dream of created sentiment. As doubtlessly as it could sting a nose on its directness, the moment squeezes tear ducts easily too. In this case, the sincerity is earned by Still Human’s meaningful journey and the dedicated performances of the leads. Director Oliver Siu Kuen Chan’s debut feature is the epitome of the genuinely genteel washing crassness away. The spirit-affirming foreign entry debuts locally in Chicago for a special Asian Pop-Up Cinema presentation at the Gene Siskel Film Center on May 13th.
Leung may occupy a busy Hong Kong apartment complex, but he couldn’t be more alone. A construction site accident years prior has him confined to a wheelchair and paralyzed from the chest down. The years since have not been kind. Leung is divorced and only communicates with his college-aged son through web chatting on chance occasions. He scoots through his solitude in mostly stern silence amid the busting urban sounds of his environment until something sets off his irascible, belligerent, and profane triggers.
The severity of Leung’s injuries and his work settlement call for an in-home caretaker. Needlessly to say, he’s gone through quite a few that have either quit or been fired, making viable candidates hard to find. In a place like Hong Kong, the young 20-something Evelyn is a looked-down-upon foreign worker. She holds a Bachelor’s degree but is burdened by familial disapproval and personal debts where this ugly work is all she can get at the moment. With diligence, constant courtesy, and her chin up, Evelyn obediently fulfills the role for fear of being fired. Clashes give way to apologies of temperance and shared circumstances.
LESSON #1: KEEP YOUR LIFE GOING EVEN IN LOW MOMENTS — Much that transpires in Still Human disarms our sensibilities. The arc is plenty predictable but very earnest. The closing of their language barriers and improved routines makes her ever-present encouragement louder and clearer. The presence of kindness softens Leung’s hardened stance that he is an unlucky burden and person of fault. Likewise, succeeding at this job helps Evelyn stand on her own through her dire needs.
LESSON #2: GETTING HELP WITH YOUR DREAMS — Having a big want will help Lesson #1. Our leads each carry a current life goal that begins as a lofty and unattainable wish at first. As one could expect, the obstacles are mental as much as they are physical in Leung’s case or financial in Evelyn’s. Their targets are rightly personal. Through their burgeoning kinship, the two become each other’s support system, secretly at first and then united later, for making those buoyant wishes become closer to reality and dreams worth celebrating instead of dreading.
Those lessons may be broad, but the nuance of Still Human maintains a trueness over straight syrup. Sharp framing plays with distance constantly. Little windows, corridors, and viewfinders play against the enormity of the metropolis around them always pinching things tightly. Little piano notes in the musical score warm the picture at the same time as the seasonal sun. The swells are fittingly small. The brightest rays of all belong to the actors themselves.
Crisel Consunji and Anthony Wong Chau-sang infuse discovered optimism into their respective characters’ adversities. Watching Crisel internalize Evelyn’s fears and process them into emotive performance, you would never know she was not an equal veteran to Wong Chau-sang. She anchors this film with vibrancy and light in a star-making performance. Navigating with confidence inside a guise of doubts, Anthony tempers his steeliness for honesty of his own to fit this minor melodrama. To see his granite features loosen for smiles and sobs, one cannot help be equally destroyed watching it happen.