Hong Kongers ought to savour this award-winning work showing as part of HKIFF

A movie currently doing the rounds of festivals in Asia – it was lately in Indian ones and will enjoy three screenings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival starting today, 21st March, 2016 – is one that simply ought not to be missed by those not only seeking rollicking laughs and entertainment but also, more crucially, by employers of Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) and – hopefully, as many of the latter as possible.[1]

It is a well-paced, never-a-dull-moment film full of humour, most of it infused by the protagonist, Val, a brown-skinned woman from the impoverished northeast (Nordeste) of Brazil working for a middle-class white-skinned family in affluent Sao Paulo. Her young, rarely met, fair-skinned daughter turns up in the city, pursuing a course in architecture and Val requests her female employer to let her stay with her until the young person finds her own accommodation.

Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan and accommodation eludes. The young woman having been educated to think in terms of equality ends up spending a few more days than bargained for at her mother’s employer’s abode. And the employer’s elderly husband develops a crush on her to the bewilderment of not only his wife but her employees, namely Val and a white-skinned colleague of hers, who agonise over the liberties the young person – the daughter of a mere domestic helper – seems to be taking in accepting invitations to dine at the employers’ table or swim with the employer’s son of the same age in their pool.

The film might make the audience cringe over the various “faux pas” committed by the domestic helper’s daughter, such as helping herself to a special tub of ice cream from the fridge and noticed by the female employer, leading, along with other “transgressions”, eventually to an ultimatum.

Val and her daughter in the film are from Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil. Translation: that’s like southern Philippines or many parts of Indonesia or vis-à-vis Indian cities, parts of the states of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Assam and so on. In Brazil, class and race and massive inequality are living issues: In fact they are headline news these days.

In Hong Kong, race and the race-based policies that the Hong Kong government follows towards FDWs – its ignominious two-week rule (requiring anyone losing a job, never mind whether she deserved to be fired or not to leave) among others – have attracted some attention but not nearly enough, such that most employers get away with ill-treating a few hundred thousand of them.


In India, in addition to geography, there are other elements such as caste that are seized on by employers to deny women the rights, not to mention the dignity, that are inalienable according to the constitution of the land and the international human treaties the country is party to and gets criticised but given the much of India’s media is dominated by oppressor-caste males, rarely gets reported.

Incidentally, Hong Kong too gets periodically criticised by treaty bodies – committees overseeing its commitments to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms or Racial Discrimination – as well as other entities. Until some years ago when Hong Kong boasted of a vibrant free press, now greatly tattered, rebukes by these treaty bodies got prominently reported.

But now Hong Kong is beginning to resemble India where the words “human rights” have become the subject of abuse thanks to Hindu supremacist and quasi-fascist tendencies having grown powerful.

And so it is particularly important to point out the strong egalitarian message that is infused in the film which ends with a delicious denouement!

Among domestic workers are some extraordinary achievers such as Baby Haldar in India,[2] now a noted author and Liza Avelino, a Filipino domestic worker in Hong Kong who has made a mark as a trekker and mountain-climber.[3] Many others are accomplished artists and/or boast tertiary education. But regardless of their qualifications and achievements or lack thereof, by the very fact of being workers, women, human beings, they have an inalienable right to dignity. It is to be hoped that employers watching The Second Mother will leave the cinemas not only with a smile but with some fresh thinking.




About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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  1. “…a delicious denouement!”
    All the more reason to catch up with this movie. 🙂 But I don’t know how as the screenings are over.

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