Streaming Review

Overseas review – stylish but distressing insight into Filipina maid school

Following the training of Overseas Filipino Workers, Sung-a Yoon's sympathetic doc is fascinating, complex, and avoids easy answers

The plight of Overseas Filipino Workers is the focus of this stylish yet highly distressing documentary from Korean director Sung-a Yoon. Overseas takes us inside a training school in the Philippines, where young women are instructed on how to cook, clean, and act around their future employers in countries like Oman, the UAE, and Singapore.

Exporting domestic work is big business for the Philippines, but Overseas shows that it comes at a huge personal cost. The women at the school not only have to work gruelling hours in physically demanding work, but must also psychologically prepare themselves for months of loneliness and abuse.

There are some very upsetting scenes here as veteran Overseas Workers cry and laugh their way through traumatic memories, but the most striking moments come during the training itself. Part of the training takes the form of a series of roleplays, where one worker takes the role of a furious or vulnerable employer, demeaning and confusing their maid.

It makes for fascinating viewing, with the experienced workers clearly drawing from specific memories (in one scene, the “employer” mixes up the English words for “carpets” and “curtains” and flies into a rage as soon as she’s corrected), giving a powerful insight into an overlooked world.

Yoon presents these scenes in an intimate but matter of fact manner, though there are some dreamlike interludes with the kind of ambitious camerawork you’d sooner expect from an indie drama than a documentary. It keeps Overseas visually interesting, able to pass on a lot of information without ever feeling dry. With its imaginative approach and lack of easy answers – you grow to hate these women’s unseen employers, but they pay better than any native job would – Overseas offers an essential insight into the bleak side of a globalised workforce.

Overseas is now streaming on MUBI.

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