The movie opened with Christine (Eva Green), a fashion designer for kids’ wear, and her husband (Mark Strong) leaving their big house and arguing about who brings their daughter Bobs (Billie Gadson) to school. At an event at work, Christine got a call seemingly about a tragedy (“they’re pulling out bodies”), did not want to deal with it at the moment and then a tick-infested dog came out of nowhere, approached her, shooks its ticks off and one implanted itself on the back of her neck. A few months later, Christine was shown suffering from a mysterious illness that includes body pains, breathing difficulties, memory loss, and other symptoms that she says goes away when she goes to the doctor. Then Diana (Chai Fonacier) showed up at her door.
That Diana looks, acts and sounds different kicked off the conflict in this film. The “other” is an oft-used archetype of the horror genre, but in this film, there’s economic and social inequity embodied by the “other.”
Building on that is how Christine does not remember hiring Diana who is going to live with them. The sheer implausibility of this requires a suspension of disbelief to move forward, especially if the likes of TaskRabbit or transient help is the more common option. But the horror in this situation, in reality, is how in many European countries, residents prefer to hire unregistered overseas workers as domestic helpers — sitters or house cleaners paid on an hourly basis — than the registered ones or live-in ones that require paperwork, taxes, benefits, etc. meaning the extra effort and cost to them.
Christine’s ready acquiescence to folk healing, subscribing to it as her salvation is a familiar scene in local/Filipino movies covering similar themes. But in this one, it is surprising and only aided in the story by her belief in her lucky red shoes.
A lot of Filipinos living in the metro do not subscribe to folk healing anymore, unless in a health bind leading to a bid to explore all alternatives to dominant western medicine practiced in the country. This is usually due to a lack of clear diagnosis or results or healing after seeking medical help for some time, lack of acceptance of the diagnosis given or in search of a second, third, nth opinion or to find cheaper alternatives for healing. Or they simply don’t have access to it. Much like how those in the rural countryside do not have access to doctors, hospitals and health care in general.
We only usually see folk healing in horror films. In reality, the lack of health care despite now what the pandemic taught is the real deathly horror. In 1990, a study showed that six of 10 sick Filipinos die without seeing a doctor or in their lifetime. After three decades, this has only gotten worse. Now, even with efforts to upgrade the healthcare system due to the pandemic, seven out of 10 Filipinos die without seeing a doctor.
While using the mysticism of spiritual healing, the film touched on a lost or dying tradition. Gone were the days the grandmothers of millennials would offer herbal medicine as home remedies. We don’t see these in life hacks videos on Youtube or Tiktok. The range of over-the-counter western medicine available at 24/7 convenience stores has gone beyond colds, cough or the common flu. It is easier to buy and pop a pill than harvest leaves, let alone identify them.
(The supernatural or faith-based aspect of Diana’s healing is another thing, but one that is also present and even persistent in local culture, especially in rural areas, and that which persists due to the lack of health care.)
Diana’s workplace in the Philippines shares similarities with the sweatshops in Asia of global fast fashion companies. The tragedy in Diana’s workplace mirrors the 2015 tragedy in Kentex, a factory making slippers in Valenzuela City in Metro Manila, where many sweatshops with inhumane working conditions and wages exist to this day. A song made about this disaster, Pugon [Oven] by General Strike, was used in the closing credits of the film.
The film is trying to say that something more sinister at work here is the evil of capitalism, making a living hell for those in the lowest rungs and who also die by the fires of hell. And how Western medicine supplanted folk healing, but its inaccessibility is the cause of a lot of deaths.
Diana’s motives and actions were seen to symbolize fighting the system. However, the confrontation is personal and Diana’s resolution is revenge against another cog in the wheel rather than against the system itself and could not be counted on to elicit change.
Nocebo is a harmless substance or treatment associated with harmful effects or worsening of symptoms when taken, very much the opposite of placebo or what Christine might have been experiencing at the start of Diana’s healing. The nocebo effect here could be due to Christine’s inability to face her own guilt and her lack of accountability.
In the end, the film reckoned that with the blood in her hands in a country far away and the general treatment of overseas workers and immigrants, the helpless Christine actually doesn’t deserve the gifts of another culture’s folk healing. And Diana ultimately gave her the obverse.