Meet HK cinema’s newest leading lady—and she’s Filipino
We couldn’t be happier to catch up with Hong Kong-based Filipino actress Crisel Consunji when she came home for a couple of days last month.
Last time we crossed paths with her, we handpicked Crisel to play the teenage Little Red Riding Hood in “Into the Woods,” the Stephen Sondheim musical that we directed for New Voice in 2007.
We expected more exciting projects from the lovely actress after “Into the Woods.” But barely a year after the musical wrapped up its run at Music Museum, Crisel decided to pursue other opportunities at the former British Crown Colony—first, as a performer in Hong Kong Disneyland, then as an educator at Baumhaus, the preschool she cofounded, where she teaches young kids and trains music and movement facilitators under the Kindermusik program.
Crisel’s career has just taken another exciting upward trajectory with the impending release and big-screen rollout of Chan Oliver Siu-kuen’s “Still Human,” with award-winning veteran actor Anthony Wong (“Infernal Affairs,” “Initial D”) sharing top billing with the 34-year-old homegrown actress.
Produced by Fruit Chan, the film, which will be released commercially next month or in April, is about the unlikely friendship forged between nurse-turned-domestic helper Evelyn Santos (Crisel) and her wheelchair-bound employer, Leung Cheong-wing (Anthony), a lonely old man who has been abandoned by his family.
And we can’t wait for Filipino viewers to see the movie in our cineplexes.
If you think “Still Human” is just another poverty porn banking on contrived schmaltz, you’ve got another think coming: The film recently won the Netpac prize at the Hawaii International Film Festival, as well as the best actor award for Anthony from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, where Crisel also merited a best actress nomination. Not bad for a first-time movie actress.
The role wasn’t handed to Crisel on a silver platter, however. In fact, knowing that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, she worked very hard to convincingly and credibly limn a portrayal devoid of superficiality and theatrical excesses. But while the spirit was willing, the flesh was, well, inexperienced—initially, at least.
“In my first few scenes, I felt like a failure because (director) Siu-kuen kept saying that my performance was ‘too big, too big, too big,’” she recalls. “But she was so patient with me that she would take me aside during dinner breaks and work on my scenes with me—until I got the hang of it. Then, everything came together.”
It didn’t hurt that Crisel could easily relate to Evelyn’s personal circumstance. “It’s a story about a paralyzed man and his helper who help each other get their lives back on track,” she explains. “It’s a mainstream Hong Kong movie that marks the first time they’re getting a Filipina to portray a domestic helper in the lead.
“When I saw a casting call for the film on Facebook, I thought it wouldn’t hurt sending them an application. I was lucky Siu-kuen and I hit it off. She’s an intellectual, and she was looking for somebody who could help mold the direction of my character and her story.
“My character’s issues were right up my alley, because I used to do a lot of social work. I taught an acting workshop for helpers for a year and a half, so I knew a lot of their stories. I didn’t even have to do research because I understood where they were coming from.”
It’s a role that Filipinos can relate to, Crisel enthuses: “I play Evelyn, a cash-strapped nursing graduate who goes to Hong Kong licking her wounds from a bad marriage. She has dreams for herself—she wants to be a photographer. She’s been accepted into universities abroad, but she had to put everything on hold because she wanted to sort her life out first by getting an annulment.
“The prospect of working in Hong Kong petrifies her because she wouldn’t even be working as a nurse, but as a domestic helper. But when she gets there, she ends up serving a paralyzed man whose situation appears to be just as dire. He’s divorced, he’s poor, he’s alienated from his only sister, and he only has one friend, who visits him.
“So, other than the OFW (overseas Filipino worker) angle of the story, the film represents a marginalized sector of Hong Kong society—the aging and the disabled, who have nobody to turn to. It’s as relevant to them on many levels.”
More than boosting her stock as an actress, Crisel sees her “fortuitous” participation in “Still Human” as an opportunity to raise awareness for her advocacies, not the least of which is to break down the long-festering stereotypes about domestic helpers and overseas Filipino workers, who now comprise more than 10 percent of the whole Philippine population.
While the OFW situation remains to be “far from ideal,” Crisel is thankful for the encouraging shift in the way the younger generation of Hong Kong nationals is treating its Pinoy helpers.
“It’s true that there are still sad stories involving OFWs, but a lot of Pinoy workers in Hong Kong have become empowered enough to stand up to abusive practices,” she explains. “And you should hear the encouraging way the new generation of Hong Kong residents, aged 30 and below, talks about its helpers. These are the young people who were raised by their Filipino nannies, so they don’t really consider them ‘lower’ than they are.”
Crisel says it was easy for her to embrace the role because she didn’t have to “pretend I was anyone different.”
“I see Evelyn as an amalgamation of every Filipino who leaves the country,” she muses. “We can’t talk about the Filipino story without discussing the values that shape our decisions, and the diaspora that forces us to leave our families behind in pursuit of greener pastures.
“Viewers who have seen the film are surprised to look at it from our side of the story. It’s like saying, ‘You think you’re helping us by giving us money? But you don’t see the high stakes that could make us lose our mothers and sisters.’ An even bigger tragedy ensues when OFWs decide to come home, only to return to poverty and broken families. After all, it isn’t just about making money, but pursuing dreams.”
What’s next for Crisel?
“I would love other opportunities like this—and perhaps a film in the Philippines?” she quips with a shrug and a smile. “Seriously, I don’t know what my next steps are, because I didn’t see this coming. It’s scary and exciting at the same time. But I feel like this is fate. I’m not superstitious, but who knew I’d be making my film acting debut at age 34 (laughs)?”
As they say, hope springs eternal.
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