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The Chair & other strong women who sit there

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 27, 2021 6:00 am

For many women who are chairpersons or heads of their departments, their barangays or their governments, their “chair” is also their throne.

Because women generally don’t have it easier than men through the years — they have their monthly periods, they hurdle millennia-old biases (women are said to earn less than men for the same executive position), and are often defined by stereotypes (as to the roles they are expected to fulfill, like housekeeping).

And because women are good at multi-tasking, they can take on the problems of work and the affairs of state as well as their children’s homework at the same time without dropping the ball (even ifMadame Secretaryis fictional, her juggling of roles is oh-so-true).

So, when women finally get to be called “Chair,” their chair is deservedly their throne.

Netflix’sThe Chairis the fictional story of an Asian-American woman who gets elected chair of the beleaguered English department of “Pembroke,” a “semi” Ivy League university in the US.

The Chair, co-created by actress Amanda Peet, stars Sandra Oh as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (before Son Ye-jin and Song Hye-kyo captured our attention on Netflix, this Korean-American actress already had top billing in Hollywood, including Grey’s Anatomy.)

Oh as Ji-Yoon looks unmistakably Asian, and in the real world as we read about it today, Asians in the US have had to battle prejudice and hate crimes.

Thus, Ji-Yoon being the first woman of color sitting as chair of a hoity-toity department, the English department at that, is a feat. The English department in Ji-yoon’s university comes with many “relics” from the past, including three brilliant professors who are the highest paid but have the least enrolment in their classes. The dean really wants to lead them out to pasture.

Sandra Oh at the head of the table inThe Chair. (Photo by Eliza Morse/Netflix)

One of them, the woman (portrayed byHolland Tayloras Dr. Joan Hambling), is relegated to a basement office with no WiFi. It is a literal downgrade the two other men in her predicament did not get. Why so? Because she is female?

There are also rising stars in the department—another woman of color, and a rock-star professor who offends many sensibilities by making the “Heil Hitler” sign in front of the class—creative license be damned.

How chairman Ji-Yoon (Oh), who has had to jump through many hoops to get to sit on her chair, navigates this world makes for an interesting six-part series.

Her efforts to hold fast to her chair at the head of the table, and still fulfill her roles as a single mom and dutiful daughter, make one wonder if Ji-Yoon’s getting “the chair” was well worth it, and if keeping it is the diadem of her existence.

Oh is totally engaging asThe Chair—she doesn’t weigh down the viewer with her struggles, she makes the viewer laugh, and win or lose in the politics she finds herself in, she wins our affection, our attention, and our praise for the choice she finally makes.

A real lady’s choice, pun intended.

Encounter

Encounterstars Korean A-lister andHyun Bin’s ex Song Hye-kyoas Cha Soo-hyun, the president of the humming Donghwa Hotel chain and the steadfast daughter of a prominent politician, a “presidentiable,” in fact. As a young woman, Soo-hyun was married off to a wealthy family supportive of her father’s political ambitions, but is now divorced from its heir.

She falls in love with a younger man occupying an entry-level position in the PR department of her hotel (It is made clear from the start she was not instrumental in his hiring).

So it’s a modern-day version of the “Princ(ess) and the Pauper.” Her boyfriend Kim Jin-hyuk(essayed byPark Bo Gumwho is as cute as a cuddly puppy dog and gives unconditional love and loyalty like one) isn’t exactly a pauper, but she is a princess.

In Korean society as portrayed in this fictional drama, the mere act of an older woman (a “Noona”) falling in love with a younger man is already considered a “scandal,” even if she’s divorced and he is single, to the point that it affects stock prices and profit margins.

Song Hye-kyo as Cha Soo-hyun in Encounter. Photo from Netflix

Soo-hyun resists, succumbs, then resists again. Though all too human, she is acutely aware of her role as a politician’s daughter and the president of a company, and how these will impact on the very ordinary life of her boyfriend.

It’s a complicated world, an encounter between rich and poor, tradition and modernity, love and love in a society where norms are writ in stone.

So, who wins in the drama’s various encounters? Again, it is determined by a woman, a strong woman.

A Faraway Land

Not all that glitters on Netflix is K-drama. One of the exceptions is a movie starring, written by, and directed by Filipinos,A Faraway Land.

Set inthe Faroe Islands—18 picturesque islands between Iceland and Norway where there are reportedly some 300 women from the Philippines and Thailand due to a shortage of women there—A Faraway Landcenters around a Filipina named Mahjoy.

Portrayed byYen Santos, Mahjoy is married to a much older Faroese fisherman. She is the designated local guide when a Filipino reporter filming a documentary on overseas Filipino workers visits the Faroes. The reporter is played byPaolo Contisas Nico Mercado, who is immediately smitten by Mahjoy.

Mahjoy isn’t coy about how content she is in the Faroe Islands, because, according to her, you work hard and you see where your hard work goes. In the Philippines, she muses, she would have probably been a mother of 10 already, and hard up.

She and her husband Sigmund have one child, and though they keep their finances apart—something puzzling to Nico—she says her husband is her best friend. Even if there is one telling scene where her arms are bursting with grocery bags and Sigmund just walks alongside her. One of the bags breaks and fruits spill over the ground and Mahjoy picks them up one by one, with no help from gentle Sigmund. It is not an indictment of him—it simply portrays the way things are between them.

Yen Santos as Mahjoy in A Faraway Land. Photo from Netflix

Contis as Nico Mercado interviews Mahjoy — who has her own Asian restaurant and food truck in the Faroes — and her fellow OFWs, most of them working in fish processing plants. He doesn’t see them as victims, but as the writers of their own narratives.

In this movie directed byVeronica Velasco, Nico and Mahjoy fall for each other, and he seems sincere in asking her to go back to the Philippines with him so they can start the five of the 10 children she was stereotyped to bear.

And like Ji-soon inThe Chair, and Soo-hyun inEncounter, Mahjoy inA Faraway Landmakes a choice.

We are the choices we make. When strong women make their choices, they change even the destiny of men.