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As a study of loneliness and suppressed fear, this stylised documentary from the Korean-born director Sung-a Yoon could hardly be improved on. It is a study of a training school in the Philippines for what are known as OFWs, or Overseas Filipino Workers. They are live-in maids who take two-year contracts, typically in the Middle East, and are prized for their submissive, hardworking attitudes and their perceived reluctance to make a fuss if they are abused. The women here recall that President Duterte himself has praised OFWs as “heroes” for bringing foreign currency into the Philippines.
The film shows them learning how to do domestic work: cleaning, cooking, bathing children and elderly or disabled adults. It shows these women being lectured on how they must prepare for their terrible isolation and being separated from their children. Startlingly, the documentary also shows the role-play classes showing them how to absorb the abuse they will inevitably get, taking turns to play the mean mistress or master of the house shouting about how the bathroom has not been properly cleaned. They are told: “Never cry in front of your employer; it shows weakness. Filipinos are not weak.”
Most staggeringly of all, there is a class on how to behave if (or maybe rather when) the master of the house, or his brothers or sons, try to rape you. A trainee is shown spraying perfume into the assailant’s eyes. Later, the teacher takes the class through what to do if these attacks become frequent. “You report them,” she says. “To the police?” asks one naive young woman. “No – to the agency.”
In concert with these dramatised moments, Yoon gets the women to enact their loneliness for her camera, asking them to soliloquise their sadness. Yoon’s previous film, Full of Missing Links (2012) was a brief documentary about her own separation from an absent father, and the theme of exile and separation is very much present again here. This is a study of people preparing for a kind of serfdom and hoping that they will be able to save enough for a yearned-for future in which they will be reunited with their children, having missed the growing-up. It is hauntingly sad.
• Released on 25 November on Mubi.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Overseas review – maids in training make haunting viewing | Film