In 2018, the Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte honoredoverseas Filipino workers — the women deployed to Dubai, Singapore and other countries as domestic help — as heroes for their hefty contribution to the country’s economy. But in “Overseas,” an observational documentary set in a Philippine training center for such workers, the pupils question this designation. “How can you be a hero when you just work abroad for your own family’s future?” one asks.
The exaltation of desperate survival as a moral virtue emerges as the central irony of Sung-a Yoon’s wrenching film. The training center serves as a kind of microcosm. With its pastel-colored walls and labeled rooms (“bathroom,” “kitchen area”), it’s the setting not just for cleaning and caregiving lessons but also role-play exercises that prepare the women for the abuses often meted out by their employers. The trainees commit to these harrowing scenarios with a disorienting sense of play — wearing, for instance, a corny, painted-on mustache while playing the assailant in a sexual assault simulation.
With a fly-on-the-wall approach, the movie allows the center’s cruel contradictions to accumulate with a slow burn. If the classes offer the women a cathartic space to acknowledge the indignities of their situation, the instructors are also quick to frame those horrors as obstacles their pupils must “learn” to overcome.
Occasional staged soliloquies jar with the film’s delicate vérité approach, but Yoon’s eye for composition remains precise throughout. One image has haunted me for days: The face of Jing, a young woman dreading her impending separation from her family, numbly receiving the results of her psychological evaluation: “Your obedience score is high, which is good if you work abroad.”
Not rated. In Tagalog, Ilonggo and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Watch on Mubi.