Tuesday 24 November 2020

New labour: "Overseas"

The Korean filmmaker Sung-a Yoon's Overseas operates in parallel with last month's The Young Observant, another Locarno festival premiere that found a home on MUBI's UK platform. That doc followed a restless young man being schooled with an eye to his becoming hotel waiting staff; compelling though it was, it was a first-world proposition, and its subject likely had alternative career paths if the hospitality game didn't pan out. No such comfort here. Yoon shows us young Filipino women being trained to become live-in domestic staff, ushered through classes on how to lay a table, make a bed and handle demanding employers. Good service has apparently become one of the Philippines' biggest exports. Early on, we learn that many of these trainees have reported here after serving tours of duty in Dubai, Saudi and Singapore; they will be posted in similar directions once this refresher course in washing, ironing and placesetting is completed. Yoon isn't merely here to compile an instructional video, however. Her camera watches as the trainees roleplay tricky scenarios their work has put them in, and on their nights off, the filmmaker invites these women to confess their innermost anxieties and fears. These vary in gravity, from missing the conclusion of a K-drama to being a long way from home and family, at the beck and call (sometimes mercy) of someone who doesn't necessarily have to treat their staff with an appropriate courtesy or respect. As one of the course's instructors rather ruefully defines their position: "You are just slaves. You have no right to complain."

What the film is priming us for - as the teaching primes its busy students - is entry into a markedly different labour market than The Young Observant delineated. In what may well be the most shocking sequence for Western audiences, one maid recalls how one of her male employers routinely molested her, and shrugs that her only recourse was to laugh it off. Given that one of the roleplays Yoon films concerns what to do if the man of the house forces himself upon you, these sorts of assaults are clearly far more common than one might hope. The extent to which these women really are slaves-in-waiting is made dismally clear by a telephone interview with a potential employer who insists their staff serve the full two years of their initial contract, and to do so while sleeping in the same room as a baby. (The string of assents with which the candidate meets every last one of these demands gets ever more heartbreaking.) Yet Overseas is never straightforwardly issuey; it is instead quietly observational, and perceptive with that. You can sense Yoon's ears pricking up when one trainee brings up President Duterte's comment that OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) are "heroes": the discussion that follows offers the sight of these women defining who and what they are for themselves. It may be the last time they get to do that for a while.

The film is not without flickers of humour: the roleplaying sporadically generates absurd chuckles, as the women drag up or adopt childish voices so as to embody potential employers and their demanding offspring. Signs of solidarity, too - a quality that might be consolidated and unionised if a hard-right wrecking ball like Duterte weren't so furiously set against it. Much as The Young Observant played out as a bootcamp movie, Overseas introduces us to a band of sisters, caught sharing their experiences, making plans for the future, and finally bunking down together at night, as if to stockpile some warmth and camaraderie ahead of the long nights of solitude awaiting them in a foreign land. Yet there's a sadness written deep into every frame of the film. These women are finally soldiers - good soldiers, as Duterte paints them, but soldiers nevertheless - shipped out to make sacrifices amid the dirty war of deregulated global capitalism so they can send a little extra money back home each month. I was worried by the film's long opening shot: an unbroken four-minute take rather dispassionately observing one young maid as she breaks down in tears while cleaning a toilet; the fear was that Yoon was merely here to peer in, for pure voyeurism's sake. The remainder of this profoundly empathetic film, thankfully, is patient and sensitive indeed about showing us why these women cry - and why they press on regardless. We can but wish them well, wherever they end up in this world.

Overseas will be available to stream via MUBI UK from tomorrow.

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