By Yun-hua Chen.
After a very personal debut Full of Missing Links (2012) about her journey back to South Korea in search of her father and the experience of separation on a larger scale in the country, the Korea-born and Brussels-based director Yoon Sung-a’s second documentary Overseas, a Belgian-French coproduction, focuses on separation for financial reasons this time; as the OFMs (overseas Fillipino women) make the decision to work abroad as domestic workers in order to support their family, they face an uncertain future and long-term separation from their families. The film is a hidden gem in Locarno Film Festival’s Concorso Cineasti del presente (Filmmakers of the Present).
Overseas observes this group of women coming from different regions of Philippines and of different ages who gather in a training center which prepares them for the imminent departure to the Middle East or East Asia. Yoon Sung-a’s camera calmly observes the day-to-day routine of their seminars and hands-on practices. The friendly training staff not only guide the soon-to-be OFMs through practical matters such as how to set a table, serve dinner, wash a baby, and talk to employers, but also go through different scenarios relating to how they will potentially be treated and mistreated, both physically and psychologically. This time and space is their limbo, where these women lead a collective life before embarking upon a life as a housemaid abroad; “it’s a matter of luck”, they say, “whether one encounters a good employer or a mean one”.
Most of the time, Yoon’s camera is static and calm. In a way that reminds us of some classic moments of the early cinema, she carefully places her camera with a medium shot to capture the protagonists and let their movement unfold naturally. When the camera from outside the main gate looks into the training center’s courtyard in front of the entrance, we see the participants carefully walk in a line to avoid stepping into rainwater ponds after a storm, like a contemporary scene of Louis Lumière’s Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in 1895; workers’ condition is supposed to have been improved since the late 19th Century, but the OMFs still encounter mistreatment and abuse on a regular basis. At intervals between training sessions, we hear their recounts of previous employers who sexually harassed them, verbally or physically abused them, or deprived them of food or sleep.
The most powerful part of the documentary is their enactment of previously lived scenes through role-play. As a part of their training and unsolicited by the director, they would enact the scenes of an angry employer telling a housemaid off, or a sleazy employer attempting to fondle a domestic worker. As one puts on a blazer or fake moustache to play the role of an employer and the other one in the role of a housemaid apologizes to appease him or her, these scenes are enacted for those who have not yet worked abroad to be mentally prepared for the upcoming challenge, as well as for those who have already experienced it first-hand in Hong Kong, Dubai or Oman to heal those untreated wounds. These therapeutic sessions often end up in tears and then laughter.
Overseas gives a voice to the almost invisible and silent group of displaced migrants who travel far to take care of the elderly and young family members of strangers, while being deprived of seeing their own children and family for several years. It explores the contemporary slavery in which wealthier countries can afford housemaids with a relatively cheap wage, which is many times of the local salary in Philippines because of exchange rate; under this economic inequality human beings are more often than not treated like expendable merchandise. Yoon portrays these women’s individualities and emotions with a gentle and understanding tone, and renders these brave, mindful, energetic and humorous Filipinas an empowered existence.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.