Filipino actress’s film role with Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong highlights human experience of city’s domestic helpers
- Crisel Consunji, 34, came to Hong Kong as a Disney vocalist and later became an educator
- She champions breaking down stereotypes and opening dialogue on challenges and impact of Hong Kong’s domestic helpers
Crisel Consunji had never acted in a film when she was chosen to star opposite Hong Kong cinematic legend Anthony Wong Chau-sang in the independent flick Still Human.
The 34-year-old is a veteran of the performing arts as a stage actress and singer trained at the Repertory Philippines in Manila. She moved to Hong Kong at age 23 for a role at Hong Kong Disneyland, where she performed for three years as the lead vocalist in productions such as High School Musical and The Golden Mickeys.
But she had since begun a new chapter in life, working as an early childhood educator and opening two family centres that aim to infuse education with the creative arts.
Her brush with Hong Kong cinema began with a casting call for a Filipino actress that was posted on Facebook. After several friends sent the post to Consunji encouraging her to audition, she decided she would try out, not expecting that director Oliver Chan Siu-kuen would choose her for the leading role.
The film, which has been showing in limited screenings in Hong Kong since its November 6 premiere at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, tells the story of Evelyn, a Filipino woman who is hired as a domestic helper for Cheong-wing, a disabled, ageing Hong Kong man, played by Wong. It will get a commercial release this spring.
“I came onto the set petrified of the cameras,” Consunji says of filming last winter. “I was scared of failing everybody.”
She says she did not know how famous Wong was until crowds started following them around Hong Kong when they were filming on streets.
Consunji overcame her nerves because of the vision of the film. The plot builds on a common situation in Hong Kong, where some 370,000 domestic helpers live, mostly with their employers. Stereotypes often influence how both sides view each other, Consunji says.
“Most of the time people don’t go deeper, they don’t get to know the culture and the life of the people that they’ve brought into their homes,” she adds. On the other hand, Filipino workers do not have a forum to explain how they “hope to be perceived”, according to her.
“The film is a starting point to open dialogue and discuss issues that some people may find awkward to discuss. It gives them a chance to just talk.”
Consunji says she has already seen results in questions she has been asked about the film, which is Chan’s directorial debut.
She describes young people raised in Hong Kong coming up to her after watching the show, tears in their eyes, to share how they felt about the domestic helpers who have raised them but whom they have lost touch with. These workers were like second mothers to the children they have cared for.
“It just brings things full circle – a lot of the helpers don’t realise the impact they make.”
Consunji says she has seen the narrative surrounding domestic helpers change during her decade in Hong Kong, when Filipinos were looked down on, to greater acknowledgement today of their social and economic contribution to the city.
But, she says she continues to be surprised by how pervasive some stereotypes are.
This is also reflected in some questions people ask her about the film. Consunji says: “Instead of asking ‘how long have you been performing?’ they ask ‘are you really a helper in Hong Kong?’”
“This shows a bias,” she notes, adding that while she is never offended by the question, it makes her realise that the perception of Filipinos in Hong Kong is still “stuck in one subculture”.
That is dangerous, she says, because “when everybody is boxed into a category, then there’s no opportunity for you to see a person as a human being”.
The human experience, fittingly, is the crux of the film, where audiences are shown the hardships of Consunji’s character Evelyn as a domestic helper in Hong Kong, and Wong Cheong-wing, who is grappling with his own loneliness and physical disability.
Showing how they can empower each other was part of the vision of Chan, who launched the film with producer and veteran filmmaker Fruit Chan, and received funding from a government-sponsored fund for new directors, called the First Feature Film Initiative.
To prepare for the role, Consunji drew on her own experience several years ago when she volunteered with charities that work with Filipino domestic helper communities.
At the time, she witnessed a wide variety of reasons influencing women’s decisions to come to Hong Kong from her home country.
“You cannot stratify people in terms of social groups,” she says, referring to women who are technically trained as nurses or educators but who come to the city for domestic work, or those who stay in Hong Kong because they feel more comfortable socially, versus others who work in the city with an ultimate goal of returning home to start families or businesses. “Everyone has a different motivation.”
But when bringing her character to life, Consunji says she focused more on the “underlying relatable thread” of the shared human and cultural experience of Filipinos working abroad.
“There’s a common story about family – it makes you question ‘how do I balance my love for my family, while keeping respect for myself?’ For the movie all I needed to do was stay true to those values like family, responsibility and self sacrifice,” she says.
“It may not be everybody’s story but there’s some universality to it.”