No time for love, DH Joy
The movie starts with a voice-over accompanying a bunch of disjointed images that become slightly less disjointed later on. Joy Marie Fabregas says that Hong Kong is basically a stopover place. Maybe you stay here for only a few days. Maybe you stay for a couple of years. Maybe you are here on vacation or for work. But you have to make the most of your time, because you will not be staying. Unless you live there permanently, but nevermind that. You can’t stay still. You can’t slow down. You have to keep moving. Until you meet someone and time just stops.
And now the story starts.
Joy welcomes her cousin, Mary Dale, to Hong Kong. It is a Sunday, which means that all of domestic helpers get the day off. And…there are a lot of them. In the midst of the crowd, Joy meets her friends, Gina and Sally. Those two give Mary Dale the rundown of how things work for the Domestic Helpers here. Meanwhile, Joy lugs around Mary Dale’s luggage.
The four women sit down…somewhere…and Mary Dale gets a crash course in DH Economics. Always put your salary in your local account as soon as possible and then split it up for your family members and bills. Save for emergencies. If your ID says that you can work only as a domestic helper, then you are legally forbidden from getting better paying work. And if you are selling things or services on the side, don’t make it totally obvious in case the cops are watching. Of course, that job restriction gets lifted if you become a resident, marry a resident, or marry a local. Mary Dale is confused. She got a degree in Education; is she not allowed to get a teaching job? Is Joy not allowed to become a nurse with her degree? Nope. That is why Joy is planning to go to Canada and getting the rest of her family to move there from the Philippines.
Speaking of Canada, Joy gets a call from a guy at the Canadian…something. She tells him that she will process her papers right away. He tells her that she will also need to pay 5,500 for her visa. Okay. 5,500 Canadian Dollars…oh…that…okay. Well, Joy has maybe half of that. And her contract is almost ending. Alice, who had been receiving a foot rub from Joy, offers her a job. Nah, it’s fine.
The four go to Mary Dale’s employers. The two seem to be in an involved conversation that a nervous Mary Dale interprets as fighting. The others tell her not to worry. Just let that all wash over her and her two years will be over quickly. So, Mary Dale introduces herself to her new bosses and the other three leave her be.
Oh, and here is Joy’s employer, Lin. And…um…she tells Joy that her expenses are getting too high, so she will have to terminate their contract. Joy says that she cannot lose her job with four months left, but Lin says that she will have one month to find another job. Joy begs Lin to let her stay on, offering to work for half and make up the rest with another job at night. Lin says that that is illegal, but Joy promises to not give her a problem.
Later, Joy is Lin’s daughter Annie in Annie’s bed. Annie has mobility issues, perhaps some form of cerebral palsy, though it is not made clear. Joy is responsible for getting Annie ready in the morning, taking her to school, bringing her back from school, and getting her reading for sleep. After Annie drifts off into sleep, Joy goes beneath Annie’s bed to her own sleep…mattress for some screentime with her own family.
The subsequent conversation is centered almost completely around what Joy can buy for her brother Joey and sister Liezel. Her father does not want her to indulge her siblings too much, but she orders what they ask for online anyways, no complaints.
Just then, Joy gets a text from Alice, who had offered her a job earlier in the day. Apparently, even though Joy had turned her down, Alice’s boss had said that Joy could start next week. Joy thinks for a few seconds and accepts.
I guess that there is a time skip to the next week, and Alice has just finished giving Joy instructions for her job, inviting people walking down the street to come to the bar. Customers, not police.
And look who decided to show up. Mary Dale had been complaining about her job in the group chat, so Gina and Sally decided to take her to see her cousin before they take her to the alley alley bars. They start scoping out the foreign non-Filipino men to see if there are any handsome ones whom Mary Dale can hookup with or reject. Mary Dale (whom Joy tells them is a virgin) says that she is looking for love, not some random one-off. Joy, who had been trying to concentrate on attracting customers, asks her what good is love is if ends once the contract is up. Gina calls Joy bitter. Mary Dale says it is because of Joy’s ex-boyfriend JM, though Joy says that it was just that the long-distance relationship didn’t work.
Joy is about to try to get the three in a passing taxi to take Mary Dale home when Alice comes over with a drink. A drink for who? A drink for Joy. She’s busy, so the others share it. Then comes another employee with another drink for Joy. Okay. Who is it from? Oh, it’s from the bartender. A welcome drink for coming into his life.
There is no time to process this because the police are coming, and it looks like they are checking foreigners. If they check Joy, then they will know that she is working illegally and arrest her. She is frozen in fear until Gina yells at her to run. And she takes off towards the back of the bar. Annie takes off her work apron thingamee and yells at Joy to stop, but to no avail. The cops see Joy running into the kitchen and give chase. Joy runs into the crowded street, down an empty alleyway, up some stairs.
Joy stops to catch her breath, but hears the cops approaching, so she hides under a bunch of trash bags. Ick. Still, she stays there until the cops pass, thinking that she had run further. She emerges from the pile and starts to walk away when a cop orders her to put her hands up. Terrified, Joy exclaims that she is not a bad person and was just trying to earn money for her family. It doesn’t matter: she is ordered to show her ID. She holds up her ID and kneels at the cop’s feet.
Wait…what are those shoes? Joy looks up.
The fucking bartender!
The fucking bartender asks Joy why she didn’t drink either of the drinks that he had made for her. Joy answers by punching him in the shoulder. Before he can respond, Joy sees the cops approaching from behind him. Thinking quickly, she grabs the bartender’s face and kisses him. The cops ignore them and walk past. As soon as they are out of sight, Joy starts running off. The bartender tries to yell out his name, but is interrupted by a call from his boss, who yells at him for taking off when there are still customers.
Joy calls up Sally to thank her for taking Mary Dale home. She then gets a text from Alice, saying that the boss doesn’t want her back in case he gets in trouble.
And then Joy gets a friend request from someone named Ethan Del Rosario…oh, it’s the bartender. Delete. Joy says to herself that she needs a job, not a friend.
Well, “Ethan Del Rosario” has returned to the bar and his coworker is joshing him on where he is going to fit Joy into his…uh…weekly schedule. Ethan doesn’t take the bait, but mixes him a drink. His coworker calls it competition-worthy and hands it to the manager. He even registers Ethan for an actual competition, saying that he can open his own bar if he won.
Suddenly, in walks a man calling for Ethan. The manager tries to hold the man back before he can attack Ethan too badly, and another man pushes the guy out of the place as he demands that Ethan stay away from his girlfriend.
I feel like I have to point out that there are other Black people in this scene unconnected to that guy, such as other customers and the security guard who throws him out, just so that it doesn’t seem like the only Black person in the movie is an angry violent possessive man. That doesn’t excuse the character, but anyways…
Ethan is in the kitchen nursing his arm as his coworker teasingly asks him which day of the week that was about. Apparently, this has happened before, and the manager says that he risks his own job covering for Ethan. Ethan claims that he is turning over a new leaf, which the manager has also heard before. He says that Ethan could have become the manager instead had he actually taken his work seriously. But, instead, he keeps hopping between jobs and between girls. Maybe he will meet his match. Ethan jokingly says that it could be Joy.
Speaking of Joy, she gets back to her bed just in time for her alarm to go off. So, she starts on her chores, serving breakfast to her host family. The local Filipino radio station is playing on her phone and the announcer…mentions her name? He says that Ethan is accusing her of stealing a kiss and wants to meet her at the scene of the crime so that she can return it. Luckily, Lin understood only her name, so she had no cause to disbelieve Joy’s lie that it was just a friend saying hi. Unfortunately, Annie heard the announcer say something about a kiss. Joy pretends that he had said keys. She had left her keys. I am not sure Annie believes her. Also, Lin’s mother says that she is lying, but she is always angry at Joy, so who cares.
Joy is helping Annie walk to school when her phone blows up with messages from her friends asking about her boyfriend. Sally, Gina, Mary Dale, Alice, and others whom we have not really seen. She doesn’t respond to any of them.
So, Sally, Gina, and Mary Dale ambush Joy on the street to scream their congratulations to her face. She tries to change the subject to what Mary Dale needs to know regarding food shopping, but that doesn’t work. Also, Ethan manages to call her. How did he get her number? Mary Dale thinks that she gave it to him. Thinks?
Joy does her chores in the apartment, trying to ignore Ethan’s multiple calls. She does answer him once to tell him to stop, but he just takes that as confirmation that she is going to meet him tonight. Then she answers the phone again. It is her mother, asking her to come over. She sounds like she is in trouble.
Joy takes the train to where her mother lives. A little boy greets her, calling her big sis…huh. Here comes mother. She said that she knew that Joy would not come to visit unless she thought that her mother was in trouble. Joy does notice a bruise on her arm, but she says that it is nothing, a lovers’ quarrel at worst. And besides, her husband makes it up to her. Husband? Oh…well, she shows Joy the bag that he had gotten her. And Joy shows her the bag that her father had given to Mary Dale to give to Joy to give to her mother. Her mother says that Joy can keep it.
Joy tells her mother that she has gotten the job in Canada, she just needs to come up with some money for her balance. And then she will petition for her mother to join her once she is settled. Her mother is reluctant, saying that she has been married to Wayne for 6 ½ years. After 7 years, she will be a resident of Hong Kong. Then Joy’s brother and sister can come. Joy says that she will be divorcing Wayne in 6 months. But who will take care of Wayne, her mother asks. Joy brings up her father and her mother goes silent. So, Joy says that they are leaving Hong Kong and she walks out before her mother can stop her. Nice visit.
Speaking of Joy’s father, he calls up as Joy is getting on a tram. He asks about the bag and talks about seeing her mother again. Joy tries to change the subject to taking them to Canada, but her father is…less enthusiastic about going there. But Joy says that her friend is there and has told her that the benefits are better. They can be a complete family in Canada. Her father says that they can be that in Hong Kong. Joy asks how her father is so certain that her mother will divorce Wayne. He insists that she loves him, and that she married her Chinese boss only to become a permanent resident. He says that he will believe otherwise only if he hears from her.
The phone call ends and…a passenger notices Joy. It is her ex, JM. He introduces her to his pregnant wife Janet. They are in Hong Kong for their honeymoon, which they were able to go on only after their contracts in Dubai ended, and then they will go back to the Philippines where they have bought a house. He then asks about her. On vacation too? She could have lied, but says that she is working here. As a nurse? Again, she considers lying, but tells him that she is Domestic Helper…just like her mother. Just as JM starts to look at her funny, Ethan calls her to ask if she will be meeting her. Like a miracle. Now, she starts lying, pretending that she is talking to her boyfriend. This…really confuses Ethan. But she says yes, and runs out of the tram at first opportunity, so that she does not have to endure further humiliation. Well, now she has agreed to go see Ethan.
An alarm sounds on Joy’s phone. Oh, crap. She was supposed to pick up Annie from school. Joy runs to the school to find Annie sitting outside. She takes Annie home to encounter a furious Lin. Joy apologizes, but Lin says that she could fire her immediately. Joy starts to tell her about her mother, but Lin doesn’t care. During the daytime, Joy works for Lin; she owns half of Joy. That is…um…a statement. Lin storms off and Joy gets a text from Ethan. He is waiting.
Joy goes to the alleyway and glares at Ethan. He tries to be flirty, but she is no-nonsense now. Off to a hotel they go. It seems like Joy is immediately going to have sex with Ethan, so he goes along with it until she breaks down crying. She picks up the clothes that she took off and leaves.
Ethan finds Joy sitting by the harbor. He bought some food for the both of them. Playing off what happened, he asks whether it was his body odor. Joy, now playing aloof again, says that she is not that kind of girl, but is just going through something and need to let off steam. So, she just used him? Joy apologizes, but Ethan says that he was just kidding; he doesn’t care and she is too serious.
Joy surmises that Ethan is not a newcomer to Hong Kong. He says that he is entering his fourth year. A resident, she reasons, living a comfortable life with a lot of time to fool around. Ethan explains that his father is a resident, and that he is fooling around while waiting to become a resident as well. So, Joy reasons, he should be used to things like what just happened and understand that it meant nothing. Ethan is amused; actually, it is usually him who says that to the girl. But now, he understands the intrigue when someone pushes you away. Next time, he says, he should say to the girl “I love you” after sex so that she will freak out and leave. I am not sure how he got that idea, but Joy immediately says “I love you” to him. Perhaps it was her unconvincing tone, but Ethan does not leave. He says that he only likes her.
After some prodding, Ethan deduces that Joy has had her heart broken before. When she goes silent, he starts telling his story. That he is the oldest of three brothers, but the dumbest among them. He got a tattoo of his girlfriend’s name, but incorporated it into a larger tattoo after they broke up, covering it up like he covers up all of the other messes in his life. People think that he is a loser and a jerk, and he lives up to that reputation.
After a bit of silence, Joy gives in. She says that she sometimes wishes that she could be selfish and forget her responsibilities. She wants to feel like she is in control over her life. She wants to scream. Ethan lets her. So, she yells out to the harbor that she is more than the job, that she wants more, and she wants to be more.
Joy turns to Ethan and asks if that is wrong. He shakes his head; at least she knows what she wants. He hasn’t a clue what he wants. Perhaps everyone is right about him being useless. She tells him that, since she used him, then he is not useless. They get into her plans to go to Canada. He tries to get her to stay, or at least think about her four months here. The future is a long way away. He doesn’t have to be her future, but he can be her now. But, speaking of now, her alarm goes off. She takes her things and marches off. Ethan asks when he can see her again, and she simply shouts “I love you” at him. He responds that he doesn’t love her.
Hey, that’s kind of a smile.
Since this movie’s release three years ago, it has been the highest grossing Filipino film ever, 880 million pesos, or around 15 million USD. The second highest grossing movie, at 810 million, was released the year before, had the same writer-director Cathy Garcia-Molina, and also had the same lead Kathryn Bernardo. Third place got only 700 million and it is all way downhill from there. So, not even close, this is the biggest Filipino film of all time…at least not counting for inflation or whatever. One article claims that the movie made more, so calculations may have been off, but in any case, this movie was huge and has yet to be toppled. Grated, Bernardo was also in a Garcia-Molina movie that was released in in between second and first place, but got only 103 million. But, whatever.
Now, of course, this movie is a love story at its core. But I want to set that aside moment to talk about the context that surrounds it. Joy and her friends are Overseas Filipino Workers, and this movie is about that experience. Of the 100 to 110 million citizens of the Philippines, a good 10 million work abroad and send money to their family members back home, having contributed around 10 of the GDP. 213,000 of them worked in Hong Kong in 2019. How authentic this movie is to the actual experiences, I have no idea. That said, I have seen it said that it is realistic enough, and that it felt real enough to the Filipino public, who may or may have been exposed to some uncomfortable truths that their overseas family members did not want to burden them with. And, I guess more personally, it reads real to me.
One (mild) criticism that I have seen was that Filipino workers tend to have darker complexions than superstar Kathryn Bernardo. And…maybe yeah. Colorism is an issue that is prevalent in pretty much all of the countries that I have featured in this series…and in the United States. So, yeah. At least the movie didn’t darken her skin, like that that Hong Kong show did to non-Pinoy Francesca Wong to have her pretend to be an Overseas Filipino Worker earlier this year. So…what can you do?
I suppose that it is not really an issue of whether it seems real, but that it seems honest. It is neither lurid nor sugarcoated. The film portrays the life of a Domestic Helper in Hong Kong as one of constant stress and struggle. Joy’s job is not a horror story of abuse, but one of an employer who has high expectations, low pay, and lower patience. She has to wake up early and immediately get to work, taking care of her employer’s house, taking her employer’s daughter to and from school, taking care of her employer’s never satisfied mother, and going to sleep late. Joy is forbidden from taking different work, despite having a nursing degree. She is cleaning toilets when she could be changing bedpans. Unable to get better-paying work, she has to hustle on the side, resorting to buying power-banks for cellphones in bulk and illegally selling them. All of this in order to afford to get a work visa in Canada, where she can work as a nurse. She wants to bring her family along, though they are not always on the same page regarding that, and can undermine her own efforts due to having different plans. I do find it a little interesting that the possibility of Joy returning to the Philippines is brought up twice in only one scene where she is at a particular low point. It was never a serious option.
Joy is always on the move, in desperation, trying to avoid burning out. Her name may be Joy, but she has pushed out all joy in her life, sacrificing her present for a future somewhere else. Her friends seem to like joking around and messing around a bit, but Joy has no time for that. She needs to make money to afford to go somewhere else to make more money for her family. She barely has time to think. Everything is instinct and reflex and split-second decisions. Her mindset is always one step beyond utter breakdown. But it all comes tumbling down when she encounters Ethan.
There is no getting around this: Ethan pretending to be a cop is utterly terrible. He could tell just how scared Joy was of getting caught and how terrified she was when she thought that she was caught, utterly humiliating herself at his feet. And then he harasses her frequently afterwards, even paying the local Filipino radio station to mention her over the airwaves, making their “relationship” public. While he never outright apologizes for his reign of terror, he does admit to being a right asshole to Joy and having been an asshole to women before her. That said, at least he does something to endear himself to her after messing up. He doesn’t threaten her job like Lin, nor does he lure her away from her job under false pretenses like her mother does. And…well, Joy has neither the time nor emotional energy to remain as righteously angry at him as she might have otherwise. That doesn’t make it okay, but…nothing is okay.
Apparently, Ethan was drawn towards Joy because of her very negative reaction. Hrm…in any case, his form of apology (and wooing) is mostly monetary, purchasing all of her power-banks at once so that she does not have to take up so much time and energy on the hustle bustle. Of course, that also frees her up to be with him. Hmmmmm…Some of that does come off as him lording over his better economic standing, since being a bartender has him earning three times as much as she would at full salary as a Domestic Helper. He also has less of a drive to send money to others out of obligation or a need to save up for a visa. That allows him to use that money for his own happiness, and…um…girls whom he wants to woo. However, that lack of a drive to send money to others does not mean that he does not have an obligation, which is its own story. Regardless, she did tell him that she needed money, and so he obliged. So, even if he is exercising some control over her, he is giving her what she thinks that she needs.
I think that the basic building blocks of the love story are pretty familiar, including the rather red-flag beginnings of it. Fun-loving playboy wins over the hard-hearted busy woman and learns to become a better person. At the same time, I feel like the specific setting gives it a different twist. Those descriptors of Ethan and Joy are not really who they were back in the Philippines. Their experiences in Hong Kong led to them focusing on certain specific elements of their personalities at the expense of other elements. Joy focuses on work and money out of fear of failing and getting kicked out with nothing, while Ethan is floating around after having failed years ago and being unable to leave. Even in his self-centeredness, perhaps Ethan wants to show Joy both that failure is not something to be feared and that is setting herself up for self-annihilation anyways. That said, when parts of Ethan’s shameful past and present get revealed, he does try to make amends, if only to impress Joy.
While I was not particularly fond of the early parts of their interaction or how the music seemed to frame it as romantic and fun instead of controlling and intimidating, it did win me over once Joy was won over. Their changing and becoming closer seemed natural and believable. But it also makes the obligatory fallout section of the movie seem both inevitable and heartbreaking. There is an honesty to it.
There was a choice in this movie that at took me a little time to accept. Despite the movie taking place in Hong Kong, there is very little interaction between the main Filipino characters and local Hong Kongers. Joy’s interaction is limited to her employer, her employer’s family, and her mother’s family. Most of the others whom she interacts with are Filipinos. Now, at first, I looked at this from an angle of cynical practicality. The Filipino audiences don’t understand much Cantonese, the Filipino actors probably don’t understand much Cantonese, the Filipino writer-director probably doesn’t understand much Cantonese. Of course, it would make sense to minimize the amount of spoken Cantonese in the movie.
I began to think about it differently after a little bit of supplementary reading. Instead of showing the interaction between Hong Kong’s domestic workers and the locals, it foregrounds the lives of Filipinos in Hong Kong. It is an interesting contrast to the Hong Kong film Still Human, which was released only a few months prior to this one. It is fine. The movie centers on the relationship between a Domestic Helper from the Philippines and a divorced man in a wheelchair. Is it similar to Intouchables and The Upside? I have no idea. The main thing is that the focus is on the relationship between those two characters, with other Filipino characters as being secondary as the Hong Konger’s family and friends. In Hello, Love, Goodbye, the Filipinos have center stage. Outside of their employment, they have their own communities, their own spaces, and their own lives within Hong Kong. They have their own dreams and hopes and concerns and relationships. Their own sadness and their own happiness. They have their own world as the world of Hong Kong circles around them. Now, is it realistic that the Filipino characters would avoid speaking with most Hong Kongers and mostly converse in English with those with whom they do? I don’t know.
One thing that kind of resulted from this focus is that there is a feeling that Joy’s world is a bit limited. Her work life and drive has made sightseeing a luxury that is beyond her. It seems like the only place of real beauty that she can exist in is that little area by the harbor. So, one thing that Ethan does is allow her to see parts of Hong Kong that she had never seen in her two years there. And, by extension, the movie shows the audience beautiful parts of Hong Kong, not just the seedy parts or party areas. It even shows beauty in the places that Joy may have gone through many times, but never really stopped to look at because she was too busy. The movie may portray an ambivalence towards how Hong Kong treats Domestic Helpers, but it is also a bit of a love letter to the place.
Now, there are some issues that I have with the movie. Joy’s friends and Ethan’s friends to a lesser extent are not quite characters and more like foils who outline their relationship, sometimes quite loudly. That Ethan and Joy encounter their exes for no real reason other than to mess up their mindsets is a bit much. Aside from Ethan’s initial terribleness not receiving a reckoning, the happy music underneath his actions seems like an attempt to downplay the terribleness. Still, by the time that movie is over, all of that is washed away for me.
I cannot say exactly why this movie in particular became so popular. Perhaps it was simply because the actors and writer-directors were already superstars. Perhaps it revealed truths to the audience about what their family members overseas were experiencing, but were too reluctant to say themselves. Or perhaps it was because it was just that good. In any case, I have read that there were calls for a sequel. I don’t know about that. On the one hand, the movie does leave the possibility for a sequel. And I suppose that one would not expect such an ending from a mainstream movie. The lead actors and the writer-director expressed openness regarding the notion. On the other hand, I thought that the last segment was perfect. And I am not sure that a movie this mainstream would have had such an ending without the confidence of a director who had already had huge success and years of legitimacy. I worry that a sequel will undo the perfectness of that ending. But…maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be even better. I don’t know.
Honest, but not scolding. Sentimental, but not too saccharine. Tropey, but in a way that makes sense. A little flawed here and there, but really good overall. I highly enjoyed this movie and maybe you will too.
WTF ASIA 235: Talentime (Malaysia: 2009, approx. 120 minutes)
WTF ASIA 236: The Ceremony (Japan: 1971, approx. 123 minutes)