‘Overseas’: Yoon Sung-A’s Raw and Honest Portrait Honours Society’s Unseen Heroes6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Overseas (2019) is Korean-born, French-Belgian based director Yoon Sung-A’s portrait of a demographic of women often unseen and unrecognised. Mixing together the fly-on-the-wall documentary style as well as staged sequences reminiscent of theatre, the film cements its position as both an observation and commentary on how the Philippines’ bureaucratised exportation of domestic manpower registers in the psyches of the women their own government hails as ‘heroines’ for slaving away abroad.
The social commentary in the film feels like a personal letter to the main clientele of this industry: countries like Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Singapore especially, in which the cushy support and often ignorant privilege of having a live-in nanny, cleaner and cook rolled into one is coming to be not only a luxury but a necessity. Yoon takes down the employee-employer relationship barrier and challenges the viewer to dig deeper and question this phenomenon, to look beyond our rose-tinted glasses and understand these women as the dynamic, multidimensional characters they are.
Watching the other side of a dichotomous relationship is enlightening because we are often so deeply invested in it, yet ignorant of the other side. From a typical Singaporean’s point of view, watching the film would be like gaining a new pair of eyes, because it fleshes out the intricacies that we tend to miss. The women express their motivations, worries, and, most fascinatingly, their dreams for the future. Yoon does an excellent job of giving a voice to these women whose job description often expects them to play the silent backstage crew to their employers’ lives. She captures them in all their complexity and nuance.
Her camera goes behind the scenes in a making-of style — following the arduous journey the prospective overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) take to prepare for their overseas employment. The process, which feels almost like an army preparing for war, primes them for anything they might encounter at work — from standard protocol in their daily tasks to a need to take up their host countries’ languages — but nothing is quite as jarring as seeing them role-play abusive scenarios, knowing well that there’s a chance that they may soon become a reality.
Yoon’s creative agency and directorial voice shine throughout the film. It is clear she is telling a story, and that she knows how to manipulate the scenes in order to bring that story across. Punctuating the realist documentary style are sequences that are distinctively more theatrical, making Overseas not just a documentary trying to show something, but one that is actively trying to tell you something.
The film’s opening sequence is one such example. It is a long static shot — we observe as a trainee kneels by a toilet, scrubbing diligently. She begins to cry, and over the course of four minutes, her sobs become louder and more heart-wrenching. Thus is the gruelling opening scene, a premonition of what is to come for both the audience going into the rest of the film and for the trainees assuming their roles as exported domestic help.
The ethos engendered by these women is so complicated that it is hard to render a clear image even in a 90-minute film. But Yoon sure does a good job at highlighting the important aspects that we ought to be paying more attention to. Again, think of the film as a letter to nations like us, the beneficiaries of OFWs’ relentless grit and compassionate motivations.
The trainees speak openly, whether they are recounting their experiences to one another or think out loud to the camera. As the audience, we become privy to their backgrounds, motivations, and most importantly their dreams for the future. As they go through the motions of the day in the training centre, the tedium is alleviated by the women’s spirited discussions earnestly mapping out their goals and aspirations. Drying dishes and hanging laundry are not mundane activities with this crowd — there’s a vitality about them that quietly pushes for more than the hand they’re dealt with.
The role-play scenarios see the trainees verbally, emotionally, and even physically abuse one another as a form of mental preparation. It is upsetting to watch the surrender to such work conditions, an acceptance that this is part of the job description as an OFW. The film, for all its bright colours and sun-soaked imagery, is perhaps anchored to its grim subject matter most deeply by this ‘catch’. It echoes through the film, undercutting everything the trainees do in preparation for their appointments knowing well that reality — good or bad — awaits. One instructor warns, “You’re smiling, but if you’re actually in that situation, that smile won’t be there.”
Yoon’s decision to frame these supposedly dismal scenarios in a relatively playful and lighthearted way is a representation of, and ultimately also a salute to, the women’s astoundingly enduring spirit. Even against a sombre backdrop looming with uncertainties, the trainees face everything with a staunch resolve to turn the other cheek, come what may. There is a softness and warmth in the overall mood of the film, and a strong sense of belonging in the way they play, banter, and cry together like sisters.
Do we admire their dedication and selflessness, or sympathise with them for the societal pressures that govern their decisions? Yoon’s decidedly dignified depiction seems to suggest both. These women are both intelligent and compassionate, making the best of a skewed system, recognising unfairness but choosing to take everything in stride. While one scoffs, “How can we be heroes if we’re just scrubbing toilets?” She does it anyway — for her family and her future.
On National Heroes Day in 2018, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte honoured the OFWs by naming them the Philippines’ ‘everyday heroes’. In Overseas, Yoon gives true meaning to that vague statement, saying, “Yes — but look how much they truly are.”
Overseas is available for streaming on MUBI now.