Actors, Features, Hong Kong, Interviews, Philippines

Crisel Consunji interview: “I realised it would be different. It wasn’t going to be a sob story”

We talk to the breakthrough star of Still Human about working on her debut film…

“At first, I thought, film is not my medium. I’ll make fool of myself. And I think in many ways in my first few days of shooting I did. I probably bodged up a lot of things. Maybe the director is just really good at editing,” Crisel Consunji laughs.

It’s hardly as if she had no experience before making her film debut in writer-director Chan Siu-Kuen’s Still Human, where she starred as a Filipino care worker opposite a wheelchaired Anthony Wong. It’s rather Consunji’s experience was very different.

“The long story is I have a background in the arts. I grew up as a musical theatre performer in the Philippines. I started professionally when I was 10. And basically, I grew up in the theatre, and did it for about for 13 years.” Despite not being in the theatre themselves, it seems her parents were very supportive of her. “They felt like it was good. It was a good exposure to be in the arts. It gave me something productive to do, but I don’t think they saw it as a long-term career. I think a lot of a lot of families in Asia see it as a hobby. Yeah. And that’s, that’s a struggle of many young people in Asia, including me. I struggled with that identity as an artist, where you want to be an artist, but you need to get a quote-unquote, ‘real job’.

“But actually, I went a little farther away than that. I took my bachelor’s and my master’s in political science, completely different! I thought I would be involved in development work. And eventually, I thought I was going to leave the theatre, but then I got a call from Disney [the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort] saying, ‘Oh, you’re on file and we have a job for you. It’s for eight months.’ So I said, Sure, I’m just gonna fly in, do that. Only that eight months turned into 12 years! I enjoyed Hong Kong so much, I love the culture that people have and the vibrancy of the city. I didn’t stay in Disney for long, just three contracts and then I went back into the education field.”

With her big brown eyes and American accent – though notably using British colloquialisms, all that time in Hong Kong having rubbed off – it’s not a massive leap to imagine Consunji as one of Disney’s animated heroines. Musical theatre is still very much in her bones, as she shows later when she sings ‘Happy Birthday’ ahead of a screening, taking it in a near-operatic direction. She struggles to think of any film heroes or influences, but immediately comes out with Rodgers and Hammerstein  – even though “they need updates from a feminist perspective” – and Stephen Sondheim with only a little pushing.

Right now we’re in a café next to one of the main venues for Five Flavours Asian Film Festival, the Kinoteka in the grandiose Palace of Culture and Science in central Warsaw, that serves a damn fine coffee. Other members of this year’s Hong Kong contingent of guests, director Heiward Mak and two members of the Asian Film Awards Academy, have gone off with a member of the Five Flavours team in search of food, promising to bring us back some when they return.

Consunji admits this isn’t her first time in Warsaw, reflecting that another positive influence from her mother was dragging her around Eastern Europe “about 20 years,” she corrects herself doing the maths in her head, “15 years ago, when I was at university.” Though there’s more than a subtle implication she didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. “How many Filipinos been to Lithuania?” she laughs.

“I thought I had hung my performer’s coat for good,” she continues on her journey to making Still Human. “Well, I mean… there aren’t a lot of opportunities, to be honest, for English speaking theatre. Let’s just keep it at that,” She muses. “So that has been my focus ever since. And then this casting call came in, via Facebook actually. It just landed on my inbox and then I clicked on it.”

It was then the reality dawned on her of what she’d done, but perhaps she shouldn’t have worried. The film debuted at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival 2018, and has been well-received ever since, gaining various awards including Best New Performer and a nomination for Best Actress for Consunji at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2019, and another nomination for Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2019.

“When I encountered the casting call, I decided to go and check it out. I was very interested to see how a Hong Kong production would actually interpret the story of migrant women, or at least the role of women. I realised they had a lot of good intentions, [Chan Siu-Kuen] had integrity and a desire to give a very fair representation. And as I was speaking them, the casting call process was really a lot about us discussing our thoughts and our ideas and our perspective on the matter. And I realised we actually synced in terms of how we viewed it. I realised she would be different. It wasn’t going to be a sob story. You know, it wasn’t going to be it wasn’t going to have a patronising tone. And I felt this is going to be a dignified representation. And I thought to myself, right then and there, that even if I didn’t get cast, I would love to be part of the production, to be able to share the Filipino voice because it’s such a good opportunity to, to shed light on the discussion.”

It’s true, despite the ubiquity of Filipinos in Hong Kong, they’re not often seen on screen, less so in anything approaching a major role. I ask if she’d seen the film Little Cheung, screening as part of a retrospective this year for Fruit Chan, which unusually features a Filipino maid and culture. The lead boy bonds with more strongly than his own parents.

“No, but believe it or not, I receive those messages on Instagram and Facebook. People sharing that exact same story. In fact, I just had one a couple of, I think just a week or two ago, which made me remember this woman who was actually more of a mother to me than my own. If you think about it, we Filipinos have been present in Hong Kong even before the migrant worker. There were musicians in the 1970s, it’s like they were the first wave, and then the second wave in the 90s of women working in the domestic services industry, and then maybe another wave in the year 2000s for performers coming in. For Disney for example. And then yet another wave of people who have been transferred to work for multinational companies. So, we’re actually very, very present in Hong Kong society. Yet if you are not very well versed with Hong Kong films, a lot of them even incidentals. I feel that if it were really diverse and well-represented society, then even in a scene in a cafe, you know, there will be a waiter who’s a Filipino, or in a household, there would be somebody who’s Filipino. Right? Yeah.

“And I think, in many other in some other representations, not necessarily in Hong Kong, but in Asia, right? There’s still that archetypal idea of, let’s say, a female migrant worker working in the household services industry, wearing a maid’s uniform in the home when that’s actually not representative of how it is now. I think there I forgot where I’ve seen it recently. But there was a film where they were portraying, like a rich Asian family, and the women were still in those typical maid’s uniforms with aprons. And I’m like, Hmm, I see these kinds of families and yes, they’re there. Their housekeepers are in uniform, but not like that. Yeah, that’s it. It’s almost like a parody.”

(I highly suspect that might have been Crazy Rich Asians.) But with no experience of working on a film set, just how did she get on?

“The first few days were incredibly difficult. Not just about adjusting, but as with anything new, you know, when you’re, when you’re an adult, and you’re trying something new there is you have so much more to lose. The ego kicks in and I was second-guessing myself, like, I’m doing the right thing. Am I you know, what am I getting it right? Like, I remember my training is in the theatre. So naturally, by default, we’re trying to occupy space. And I remember on the first few scenes Siu-Kuen was like, ‘Okay, that’s too big.’ We try again, she’s like, ‘Oh, that’s too big, it looks over the top for the camera.’ We try again, and finally, she’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s perfect.’ I’m not doing anything anymore? I don’t feel like I’m working! ”, she laughs. “So, it was an interesting transition. But I think Siu-Kuen is a very, very, very empathetic person. She’s a good leader who understands how people work, how they function, and she reaches the person where that person is, at least from my case. I felt like she really helped me understand what she was seeing, and how was it from her perspective. And I remember on the second day, she sat me down during dinner break. You know, she ate a quick dinner. She said, Come here. This is how it should be. And once I got it, I’m like, okay, I’m keeping that process. So, it was a good learning experience. It was a humbling experience because, in many ways, I felt like I was this fresh-faced young newbie.”

Did much change from the original script? “For my part, yes. I get I got asked this question a lot on this trip, that how much of the script did I put in, and honestly: it’s barely anything because Siu-Kuen did her research really well. She got to the core of the story. In fact, she’s gotten the perspective in the voice. She’s gotten the voice of the women; she’s understood it even better than some Filipinos. So, I was very impressed. I think the only input I would have was actually around two things. One was to give a background from a person who’s lived in the Philippines to just understand the context. So, for example, the context of the annulment. Not a lot of people from Hong Kong would probably understand it. What was the relevance and significance of this? And it’s because, in the Philippines, we do not have a legal right to have a divorce. I think that was the only thing I could bring in was to just give a context so that we could deepen the understanding in cases where it was there was a cultural barrier. And I think the other was in the language I guess, obviously because then Siu-Kuen would be asking if this flowed? Is this the way you would say it? Because there are some translations obviously that you cannot have directly, you need to make it a bit more in your own tongue.

And how about working with Hong Kong legend Anthony Wong? “So, two things, right? On the one hand, it’s I think it’s wonderful to be working with somebody who really connects and who has said much experience and talent that you know, he’s just in the scene and he’s there. And basically, you just have to listen and there’s not a lot of work to be done. You Bounce, bounce off each other. And it’s easier, to be honest, it’s easier to listen because there’s not a lot of pretences. It’s just being there in the moment. And I think that’s characteristic of the experience that comes with this breadth and depth of roles that he’s done.

“But more importantly actually, was the professionalism. It just reinforced a belief that I’ve had since childhood, growing up in the theatre, watching all these senior performers. I always thought that the more seasoned and senior you were, the more professional and easier to work with you would be. I think that was just reinforced when I got to meet him, it wasn’t just about what we were doing on the set and you know, bouncing off each other, connecting with each other and what we give each other. It was the experience onset of having somebody who knows his stuff, was very professional who comes in just like everybody else is treated like everybody else. And, and because of that there’s a sense of camaraderie and respect and it’s easier to work with somebody knowing that you’re treated as equals. And that person treats you as an equal.”

Consunji seems rightly proud of what they all achieved with the film. “It’s such an interesting discourse actually, because it’s well-received, but differently in different places. In Hong Kong, the story has been well-received as much as for what it represents as the movement it represents. In hearing a voice of a marginalised people, not just for the Filipino domestic worker community, but also for, let’s say, people with disabilities or the mark for the marginalised people, the people with old age or who are not in a well-off social class, with the housing issues. I think it’s been well received for different reasons. And that’s what I’m still that’s what I’m amazed by that in Hong Kong, it’s about, it’s about the social issues.”

Not for the last time that evening, the situation in Hong Kong creeps into the conversation. It’s the first weekend of Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege and it’s been impossible to ignore. It’s a sign of how politicised it’s made everyone – both native Hong Kongers and those who’ve made their homes there – that Consunji admits to chastising her husband for saying thank you in Mandarin rather than Cantonese.

“But even more so around the world, like in Europe, it’s about that sameness and common issues on immigration, on poverty and inequality, on social relationships on race. And that has been overwhelming and humbling for me to witness. Because that, you know, everybody keeps talking about that shared thread of humanity. And every person I speak with approaches it from a different perspective, somebody will say, ‘Oh, you remind me of our housekeeper’ or ‘Oh, you remind me my relative who has a physical disability’. And there are so many narratives that come up that we probably didn’t expect at the start. The idea, so on belonging on family, on inequality, everything is popping up. So I’m really glad, because that was what I had hoped for, you know, to be able to shed light on this issue to represent a voice in a way that’s a bit more accurate and respectful of the stories of these women, at least from my side.

She notes that there were some unexpected interpretations along the way. “When we went to the US, people kept asking about the cardboard boxes. And I realised right then and there that for them, it’s so it’s such a salient symbol because it represents the homeless there. And I said, Oh, I never, you know, I never thought of how painful the symbol of the of a cardboard box would be. Whereas in Hong Kong people walk by. There are cardboard boxes there. They’ll fold that up and, and they’ll give it back. It’s an economy and its own because people make money by renting those renting goes off badly. You know they pay these old ladies who carry the boxes, but it’s something that we missed already. I missed. I missed the symbolism. It’s accidental. That’s great about any work of art: people always find something that means something to them. Something you probably didn’t intend to put in the first place. You just reflected you’re a part of society, your reality, and somebody else has found meaning.”

Talk turns to something else Consunji is very proud of, and one that draws from her own experiences. “For the past years I’ve been I’ve been working in the education sector, working with children primarily in the arts, and I’ve loved, loved it,” she beams. Consunji co-founded Baumhaus to reflect on how important creative arts can be for children, whether they continue it as a future career or not. I nudge her when Let It Go starts to play in the café, that she should know all the words. She does, but that probably has a much to do with her young students as her time at Disney. Her experience on Still Human has her wonder about future plans.

“I had thought that that was it. But coming back to performing through this film just made me realise how much I miss performing. Here I was, I was thinking that ‘Oh, I’m now here coaching young people’, but then I realised ‘Oh, there’s still so much more that I want to do.’ And it’s making me question and wonder what else I would love to explore. For one I really miss the theatre. I would love to have the opportunity to come back, in Hong Kong, unfortunately, there’s not a lot for me to do in the theatre. So, I’m open to seeing what I can do in film. That’s an interesting area because I feel like there’s still so much I need to learn. It’s so new to me and, and I would love to take this challenge on.”

When the food arrives, my heart sinks a little. It’s pierogi. Normally I’d be first in line to gobble them up, but I rather overdid the previous day, so now – probably for the first time ever – I’m finding them a little tough going. But you can’t complain about generosity.

So nothing lined up then?

“You know, people have been asking me and have been surprised, but I don’t know… maybe I still need to be at the right place at the right time. I’m open to seeing what else I can do. I think it’s possible to get a balance. I started my own business but it’s been really it’s tough to run a business in Hong Kong, especially with the recent situation. We’re basically all-hands-on-deck to make sure I can take care of all the people on the team. So that’s been my primary focus. I think once it’s a bit more settled in the tide over this time. I’d love to actively it. I do realise that this these are things you need to look out for and then review, as I think I would love to do that. I’m not too sure where my path would be. I’m very interested to continue, it’s just a matter of seeing where would I fit. Because yeah, this is a bit of a surprise for me, like a curveball. And yet, to be honest, I’m still caught in the middle and knowing that I want to perform, but I’m wondering which step I should take or which direction? It should be like what you said it should be easy to balance it. I think my question also is about the opportunity.

“Because let’s say in Hong Kong, I’m not too sure that people would see me out of the box. Because immediately after the film, people were approaching me for the role of caregiver again. And I’m not offended by it. But it’s not really a creative challenge to do the same role. And, and I wonder when, you know, when we would evolve to see somebody and say, I can be cast as a lawyer, as a teacher, as a helper, as a doctor. Yeah, as a villain,” she laughs. “You know, get out of that typecast. I think in many ways, without people realising it, it’s not so much a bad prejudice as I think its inherent, and we still need to break out of that, that mould of thinking.

“I think the fact that people were approaching me, audience members and in general people were approaching me wondering what my background was on watching the film, even if they saw me on the screen. You know, you would think okay, you’re on the screen. You’re an actress. Yet people would ask me after the show: ‘How long have you been a helper in Hong Kong?’ And I’m not offended. Because, I’m not offended with being thought of as a helper, because I want to tell the migrant women that what they’re doing is something they should be proud of. But I’m not. Obviously, I’m not impressed by the idea that people have come up with that stereotype. And cannot even imagine that I would be anything else than that. Luckily, it’s like, you’ve not thought that I could be other things, you know. And it shows you where we’re at as a society. And so, even if it is just for the audience, even let’s say with other people in general in Hong Kong.

“And in different industries, including, including the film industry, they would ask like, ‘Where exactly are you from?’ And then you can feel the discomfort. They didn’t know how to approach me, you know, because they couldn’t imagine – and I get it, maybe the only exposure to Filipinos was through somebody living in their household. So even just me speaking in straight English to them, for example, or in an accent that’s not provincial – because in the Philippines we have a lot of different provinces, and some provinces have harder accents than the others. So, coming from the city, and in speaking with them, suddenly they don’t know where to place me. So, I think that’s a barrier in many ways that perception. Because if you would perceive me as an actor, you would then realise that for instance, language wouldn’t be a barrier, because I should be able to overcome that barrier.

“In fact, when I was in Disney, my job was to just to narrate a show in Cantonese. So, I had to get it right. Yeah. And I’m, and that makes me wonder like, how much more do we need to evolve? You know, we’ve gone this far, I’ve done this movie. And I’m very thankful to have been recognised for my efforts. And now what does it represent? Because I feel like if we were really saying that if we were truly moving to a diverse industry, then you would see us in different roles in different capacities. Yeah. And maybe not just in different roles as an actor, but also maybe in production right, yes. Because, yes, I think giving an excuse of the language was a barrier. That’s something we need to overcome. You know, if need be, you have to tell somebody to go get a tutor. Take five hours a day to learn Cantonese and come back.”

“You have to stop me if I talk too much!” she interrupts herself, feeling a little self-conscious. I reassure her no interviewer is ever going to complain about. Rather than dominating the conversation as she fears, Consunji is actually very open and generous, later listening to my story as a graphic designer (I offer to help out with her activity centre, though it doesn’t look like she needs much help on that front right now), how I got interested in Asian film enough to run a site about it and involved in running a film festival.

“So, to answer your question. I have never I never actually know how to answer the question of ‘What are you doing next?’ or ‘Where are you going?’ Because I feel in many ways, I’m a misfit. Like in Hong Kong, I’m not sure I’m considered for anything else right now. And I don’t know if the language is a good excuse. You can also understand it from a production perspective, you want to simplify things. But I mean from an artistic perspective you shouldn’t have to in, but also, for example, in the Philippines, I don’t know where I would hit, how I would be viewed. I remember one of my good friends who was writing for the entertainment industry saying, ‘Oh, you’re, you know, coming from the theatre, English speaking theatre, we were probably typecast and perceived as elitist.’ You know, which is, which is I think normally many people would probably not realise, for instance, that I’ve spent a lot of time with different Filipinos and different groups and social work. And I speak Filipino fluently. You know, people would probably not think of me in that way either. There’s a typecast. Oh, if you come from a certain sector in society, you can speak Filipino with a ‘right accent’, of course, we do. You know, I grew up there. So I don’t know, I don’t know where I fit.

“We’ll see we’ll see. But I know that it’s something I would have to study and study to actively pursue. I would love to. And especially because it’s so it’s a challenge. You know, I think like, for singing as much as I love it. I know what I can do. But in film, I don’t really know what I can do yet, and I like the unknown, that kind of challenge. That’s the point of being an artist. You want to share a message. You want to think critically, and you want to challenge yourself. Do something to break about your own boundaries. And I’d rather be a small fish in a big pond, than the big fish in a small pond because you don’t grow that way.

“I would rather start from scratch than do big parts. Learn my way up and learn how to do things really well than be complacent and say, ‘Oh, I’ve done this and I’m good.’ No, we’re never happy just to be that way.” Let’s hope she gets a chance to flex those creative muscles again soon.

Still Human screened as part of Five Flavours Asian Film Festival 2019.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
Read all posts by Andrew Heskins

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